"Eating well shouldn’t mean that you can’t have treats. But even your treats should be made out of real food."
To enter the sweet butter-scented refuge of McCrea’s Candies in Hyde Park, MA is to become enveloped in a world of all things delightful. In the back kitchen, there was the bubbling pot of soon-to-be caramel, that, when poured over a sheet tray, folded onto itself in thick ribbons. There was the seemingly endless rope of cooled caramel snaked across a prep table, ready to be stretched and pulled. And there was the rhythmic thrum of the red machine that swiftly chopped and wrapped each candy. I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Kate McCrea, Co-Owner & Marketing and Product Developer of McCrea's Candies, to discuss not only how it all started, and but also how delicious and unhealthy don’t have to be synonymous.
Gwen Koch: So why caramel? Are you as in love with it today as you were when you started?
Kate McCrea: "My husband, Jason, and I started McCrea's Candies together— and he was definitely the charge-forward person between the two of us— but I really trace the seeds of this company back a bit further, even before the first batch of caramel was made. When [Jason] was laid off, it was a terrible time to be out of work in the economic down-turn. There were hundreds of thousands of resumés out there and no call-backs. It was our 15th wedding anniversary, and I insisted that we go away. So we went to Acadia National Park, rode our bikes around, and talked a lot about: What’s next?"
Kate and Jason McCrea, both biologists by training, have always seen a strong connection between art and science. During their getaway to Acadia, they talked about hypothetical What's Next scenarios, like hooking an ice cream maker to the back of a bike and pedaling your way to a sweet cup of ice cream! They loved pondering these playful ideas, but never considered seriously putting something into action and starting a capital 'B' Business.
KM: "It’s kind of a critical piece when you think, did we sit down one day and say: “Let’s make caramel; that’s our dream business!” That isn’t really how it happened. It was more thinking and seeing and making connections. While in Acadia, we read a newspaper article about a local woman who made caramel apples for trick-or-treaters and had been doing it for something like 60 years. We came home from that trip and our good friend's daughter was injured and in a body cast over Halloween (which is one of our favorite holidays) and Jason made her caramels as a gift."
There are two important things to know about Kate and Jason's relationship with caramel:
1. Candy is chemistry— the science of it didn't scare either one of them.
2. Jason grew up making candy alongside his mom. For him to get a recipe and recreate his mom’s caramels was relatively
KM: "But Jason's also a detail person, and really good at what he does, so he made the caramels that Halloween, and they were fantastic. And our friends jumped up and down and said, 'Why are you even bothering to send out resumés?! You should do this.' Then we started to think: Oh, we might be good at this! We brought caramels to other friends, and gave some to our son’s teacher who made an order sheet, of sorts, and all the teachers started ordering caramel, and we thought, Maybe there really is something here."
While Kate was still working, Jason took a solid year to plan and create the business. There was so much more to it than making good caramel. They had to sit down and ask themselves: is this viable? Could they make enough? How would they fund the project? What kind of wrapper would they use? Hand-wrapping, though they did that for a while, was simply not an option; they couldn't make enough. Once the foundation was set, they went into a shared kitchen space called Commonwealth Kitchen where makers rent space hourly.
KM: "Funny stories from that kitchen! Caramel is very susceptible to humidity, and when you’re in a shared kitchen, you don’t know what other people are working on, so you’ve got food trucks coming in and opening and closing the doors, and all the humidity is entering the space! We had a supplies cage, and we hung plastic sheeting inside, and placed a small de-humidifier within to create a dry zone. It was really strange-looking, but we made it work! And that kind of problem-solving was fun for us.
We started doing really tiny farmers markets, and even with a small number of people passing through, most of them wanted to buy caramel. After about a year, we started working with our first wholesale customers, and we quickly outgrew the hourly kitchen space. We added a third business partner, Jim, who also happens to be our neighbor for the last fifteen years. He owned a restaurant for 30 years, and he’s a good businessman who knows his way around a kitchen. The three of us all lived about two miles from here, and it was HUGE when we moved to this kitchen space. Now we’re squeezing out of it, but being here really allowed us the growth we had to have to become a real company."
KM: "We started with a 'farmers market' brand— had a little cartoon on it— that had a very local feel. The caramel has always sold, but when we were working with retailers, we found that it moved slower, because we weren’t standing there, selling it. In 2015 we went through a much bigger re-branding process: we dug right to the bones, moved everything out (in a sense), and re-branded from the ground up to really reflect who we are and what the product is, including the elimination of plastic packaging, which was really important to all of us.
The stunning, eye-catching packaging that McCrea's uses now is the result of that huge re-branding process in 2015.
KM: "As a scientist who has followed studies of plastic found in the ocean, [plastic packaging] really bothered me. Even if it's recyclable, you're counting on other people to clean up the mess that you’re making. That’s how I see it. So we went to a paper package. We went to a differentiating package. There’s a lot of intentional flavor development and knowledge behind our product. It’s not really about producing as much as we can. Our fresh ingredients are one of the things that sets us apart. Real maple syrup, fresh ginger, fresh rosemary.... Rosemary steeped, almost like tea. Rosemary cream that smells SO good! We’re not going to compromise there."
GK: What inspires each of the flavors? Do they have a personal connection?
KM: "The first flavor was 'Plain,' which we call 'Vanilla,' because we put a good amount of vanilla in it. The Black Lava Sea Salt is probably one of the most personal flavors, because Jason spent so much time trying all different types of salt. Pink salt becomes invisible on caramel. White salt, same thing. Grey salt, same thing. Black salt. Black salt tastes fabulous, because the carbon in the black salt pulls bitterness, and it looks gorgeous, which goes back to the artistry of it. There’s some contrast there.
Vanilla, Black Lava, Ginger and Mocha. Those were the first four flavors we ever made. For a while, we used to hand-cut the caramels into squares, and Jason would place a single coffee bean on each one. 'Caramel Eyes' is what we called them. We used to line them up in a tie box. I think Macy’s [department store] gave Jason a huge box full of tie boxes, and we put our sticker over the Macy’s label, and then on a small piece of parchment paper within the box, he’d carefully line up these beautiful caramels."
GK: Do you think your science background has helped you with development?
KM: "Absolutely. We’re open to trying different things— different solutions to a problem. We’re used to collecting data. Every batch we’ve ever done (EVER!) has a data sheet associated with it. From the very first batch. Jason would specify, I couldn't cut this. It was sticking to the X, Or just, Too hard to cut. Very important when you’re working with something like Scotch, for example, which impacts the texture.
Both of us have always loved food, and we love craft, and we love science, and we love people, and we’re both data crunchers. McCrea’s Candies is really the culmination of everything we’ve ever done."
As Kate described scientific methods and toured me around the space, it became clear that the lasting charm of McCrea's is characteristic of Jason and Kate's way of creating and owning a business: fastidious yet playful, and always striving toward a balance of natural and simple in a way that is their own. We moved on to discuss the challenges of being a consumer, and while sometimes it seems that we're making strides in demanding transparency, some of the language on food packages and ingredient lists feels not only confusing, but also deceiving, and perhaps this is exactly why small food and beverage businesses are having a moment right now.
KM: "I think some of what’s driving that is people being more educated about food, or, food and where it comes from, and then getting annoyed, and feeling like, I could make something wonderful. I could make something that doesn’t do X, Y and Z and is still wonderful. For us, in that year where Jason was doing product development and creating this business, taking out the corn syrup was really important to him. What does corn syrup do in candy? Most people think, I dunno: it’s sugar. No. It has a specific function in candy, so that it keeps it from crystalizing. Why? Because it’s an invert sugar, and it’s the balance that determines whether your candy crystalizes or not. It also determines the flavor profile. Too much fructose— the high fructose corn syrup— and you get a flat, sweet taste on the front of your tongue, and the flavor is gone. I can taste it the second it hits my tongue. We tried all different sugars and we finally found inverted cane. We love that! We dig in to this kind of challenge. Jason does these talks at high schools, and brings in his molecule model, breaks it in half…. But that’s kind of what I mean. We started learning more about food, and thought, I can do something about this. I like candy. What’s all this stuff in here? I don’t want that! But I still want candy. So I wonder if sometimes that’s where people see a lot of opportunity.
I pointed out how much I love the simple, yet sophisticated, look of McCrea's brand and packaging— how it draws a beautiful connection between food and art.
KM: "You want the packaging to represent what’s inside. It’s the indication that it’s something special. There are even things on the tubes that you don’t notice until you buy it. There's a colorful design on the inside lip— a little pop of surprise! The designers were trying to capture the unexpected part of McCrea’s. It's very important that it’s a whole experience— not just the caramel. And when you eat one, it should match the experience of the packaging.
Natural and simple is a really difficult balance to maintain. If you look at the caramel world, you could run in a million different directions, and sometimes it takes some discipline to hold your ground. Sometimes you’ll start to see this obsession of adding and adding and adding."
GK: Has being this involved with caramel changed the way you think about food or interpret flavor?
KM: "Yes. Specifically caramel? Somewhat. Because I look at candy in a different way. Eating well shouldn’t mean that you can’t have treats, but even your treats should be made out of real food. I think you should recognize what’s on our labels, and that’s that. But being involved in the food industry, in general, is very eye-opening, and makes me more committed to real food. It’s good and bad sometimes. If you look at ingredient lists, there’s a lot of weird stuff on there. And I don’t like to see things like 'Natural Flavor,' and 'Natural Color.' I don’t know what that is, and I don’t like it. As a scientist, I've always read labels, but it’s really more as a food industry participant that pushed me to read labels more carefully. The other part that stands out to me is branding. I take notice of what brands I’m loyal to, and why. And what brands I feel betrayed by with the tricky language out there. It affects me personally, and me as an advocate for the food world."
GK: What are your biggest pieces of entrepreneurial advice for other food entrepreneurs?
KM: "1. Find people who know more than you. That’s absolutely a must. And look at the big picture. With our new brand, for example, that was a big picture decision, and it really paid off. The small picture decision would have been: We can’t possibly afford this! Let’s go with the cheapest proposal (I can still hear the arguments in my head). I think those two actually go hand in hand.
2. You need to have a realistic view of where your business stands. When you’re selling in farmers markets, stick with a farmers market brand! But don’t assume you're going to go into Bloomingdales with that brand.
3. Hire a 'No' Man. Jim is our 'No' Man. We have these crazy ideas sometimes, and Jim is there to say 'No' to quell unbridled enthusiasm that isn’t going to get us anywhere. Enthusiasm is awesome. Enthusiasm for something that's blinding you to bigger problems is not awesome. You need people who encourage you, but who will also pull you down and keep your feet on the ground. I don’t think you can go forward without that kind of framework. If you need someone else to be doing that analysis with you, then get someone else. Jim never would have come on board if he didn’t think we had something to build."
McCrea's caramel flavors include Classic Vanilla, Ginger Fusion, Dark Roasted Mocha, Single Malt Scotch, Rosemary Truffle Sea Salt, Tapped Maple, Black Lava Sea Salt, Deep Chocolate, and Cape Cod Sea Salt, among other rotating seasonally inspired flavors. Unexpectedly, Rosemary Truffle Sea Salt was my favorite flavor. The way their website describes it is "Fresh-from-the-garden rosemary mingled with truffle sea salt. Savory magic." The foundation of creamy caramel shows off rosemary's cool, eucalyptus-y evergreen flavors. The truffle is subtle and keeps the whole thing from tasting overly piney. The slight crunchiness of the sea salt provides an enticing texture that makes you want another one (or...the whole tube!)!
To me, the flavor breakdown looked like this:
Read more about the McCrea's story here. You can purchase McCrea's hand-crafted caramels through their website, or find them on retail shelves all across the country. In the Boston area, McCrea's caramels can be found at Boston General Store, Brookline Grown, Formaggio Kitchen, Russo's and Allandale Farm, among a number of other retailers. Follow along on Instagram @mccreascandies to find out about seasonal flavors and the latest updates.
Special thanks to Diane Parazin for organizing this interview, and to the McCrea's caramel makers who were SO generous to let me photograph them doing what they do best! Such an incredible and kind team!