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Experimenter Mixes Unlikely Ingredients for Amazing Outcomes
By Amanda Hoelzeman
A self-described “experimenter,” Steve Kippels, founder of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Craftmade Toffee, is accustomed to mixing unique, sometimes unlikely ingredients to create the most amazing outcomes. The evolution of his professional career is certainly a testament to that. He retired from a corporate career in operations management and the survey research industry, and in October 2011, launched his toffee business. It may sound like a stretch, but Kippels has been making toffee since the 1950s, when he began helping his mother whip up batches of her homemade treats to sell.
“My father was in baseball when I was a kid,” Kippels says, “working for a team located in a different state. Between spring training and the long baseball season, he wasn’t around very much. My mother struggled raising two little monsters disguised as children (me and my brother) while working a full-time job. To help make ends meet, she would bake and sell cookies, caramels and this toffee recipe around the holidays. I got my start as a measurer and stirrer, but through a lot of hard work and dedication, I got promoted to breaker and bagger. That was a pretty prestigious position for a 6-year-old,” Kippels jokes.
As an adult Kippels continued to make toffee around the holidays – using the same recipe his mother did – and gifting it to people in his life.
“I would usually make between 250 and 400 pounds every Christmas and give it away to friends, family, customers and employees. After I retired from the corporate world, I got bored pretty quickly and it happened to be in October, just before the start of the holiday toffee season,” he says. “It wasn’t a giant leap.”
Just two short years later, Kippels has seven active toffee flavors in his arsenal, a few more on hiatus and “a slew” in development, and his small-batch company supplies corporate toffee gifts and offers exclusive flavors, too. Craftmade Toffee has also recently been accepted into the Walker Shop at the Minneapolis Walker Art Center, one of the nation’s “big five” museums for modern art.
Looking to the future, Kippels is honed in on continuing to create a really great-tasting, high quality product. “I have one goal, and that is to make extremely good toffee. I will always strive to get better at what I do. Growth brings reward, challenge and a need for decision to be made. What I do know for sure is that the quality of my product is of paramount importance,” he says. “I will not compromise my by-hand, small-batch process or the quality of my ingredients in the pursuit of growth.”
Below, learn more about Craftmade Toffee’s recipe for success.
TREATSIE: What are your most popular flavors?
CRAFTMADE TOFFEE: Traditionalists go for the Almond with Milk Chocolate, and those a bit more exotic like the Thai Chili Lime.
T: What are the most unique ingredients you use?
CT: The most unique ingredient would have to be the Kaffir lime leaf oil, imported from Thailand, and used in the Thai Chili Lime flavor.
T: How did you get the idea for some of your more interesting flavors, like Caramel Corn or Thai Chili Lime?
CT: The Thai Chili Lime was inspired by the title of a Southeast Asian cookbook I have, titled “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.” Like most things I encounter, I wondered, “How does this apply to toffee?”
The Caramel Corn was the result of a phase I went through when I would throw anything I could find into the toffee base just to learn what would happen. My friends, who serve as guinea pigs for all my new flavors, tried it for the first time and said, “This tastes like caramel corn!” A flavor and a name.
T: So far, what has been your greatest moment in business?
CT: Getting products into my very first retail location: Walker Shop. This is the retail venue of the Minneapolis Walker Art Center, which presents a curated assortment of products befitting their “modern living, well-crafted” philosophy. The Walker is considered one of the nation’s “big five” museums for modern art, and together with the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually.
T: Was there a moment when you were like, “Oh yeah, I was meant to do this!”
SK: It’s always been a part of me. Going through the cooking process is like a touchstone that connects me to my family and my entire history. But to be selected by Walker Shop, especially as my very first retailer, was a tremendous validation that I was on to something.