BY MEGAN HILL
But that’s the beauty of these confections: shiny logs the color of café au lait, slick with butter and laced with flavors like sea salt, absinthe, molasses, and berry. These small batch creations have grown from hobby to successful business in just five years.
Jonboy Caramels began as a side project of its namesake, Jonathan Sue. In 2008, he concocted caramels as Christmas gifts for friends and family. His business-minded friend Jason Alm was hooked.
“I called him up and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this a side business?’” says Alm, who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He stepped in as co-owner and business manager. Jonboy has met with such success that it’s now Alm’s fulltime job. Sue, who is the flavor mastermind, works as a graphic artist lead for Whole Foods Market.
When they were starting out, Alm and Sue perfected the product and packaging before approaching farmers markets, hoping to score one of the coveted booth permits.
“We started approaching the farmers’ market manager at Ballard and kept pestering her and dropping off samples and letting her know we were interested in trying to sell there,” Alm says.
It worked. The Ballard Farmers Market had an opening in the fall of 2009 and Jonboy snatched it. The crush of foot traffic there helped move product, of course, but it also got the word out about the new company.
“It’s a really great place to spread the name without having to do a lot of advertising,” Alm says. “That Ballard market draws a lot of people from all over the country, people want to bring friends and family there. Word spread pretty quickly and we just got in more and more stores and kind of went from there.”
The process of making caramel is pretty simple: sugar is heated slowly until it darkens and softens, reforming into a sticky mass. Alm says Jonboy hasn’t reinvented the wheel when it comes to the cooking process, but by using small batch production and focusing on ingredients they turn out a superior product.
Jonboy uses organic butter from Oregon and organic cream from Smith Brothers Farms, headquartered in Kent. They use an organic vanilla extract and organic sugar, too, though you can’t source those items regionally. Absinthe from Pacific Distilleries in Woodinville lends anise undertones to Jonboy’s Absinthe caramels. Summer’s balsamic berry flavor is derived from raspberries and blackberries grown by Jonboy’s fellow farmers market vendors. “It’s not cheap for us,” says Alm about their careful sourcing, “but I think people don’t mind the extra couple of dollars per package.”
The company also forgoes the use of corn syrup, often used by large manufacturers to provide longer shelf life, smoother texture, and flavor enhancement. Corn syrup prevents the recrystalization of sugar, but nutritionists caution against consuming too much because it’s high in calories while adding little nutrition. Corn syrup can also spike blood sugar levels, while brown rice syrup does not. That was important to Alm and Sue, who figured they’d work around the shelf life issue. Sue experimented with brown rice syrup and it solved the texture problem while allowing the caramel’s flavors to shine.
“Our initial goal wasn’t about shelf life,” Alm says, “Our initial goal was that we wanted to use the best ingredients we could.”
But now Jonboy’s eight-week expiration date is a challenge to a widening distribution range. “It’s becoming more and more important for us to figure out ways to prolong the product now, because if you have a short shelf life you’re limited geographically. It could be two, three weeks before the store even gets them on the shelf, and then you’re left with five, six weeks of shelf life,” Alm says.
He’s currently looking into different packaging materials that may alleviate that problem, but also prefers to work with retailers who believe in fresh, high quality products.
“I think we had a good concept with the packaging and good simple flavors that people really like,” Alm says. “Also Seattle is a great market for specialty foods. People really appreciate quality things. I think it’s the right place for it.”
You can find Jonboy Caramels at the Broadway, Ballard, and University District farmers markets, in local PCC and Whole Foods stores, The Cheese Cellar, Bellevue Arts Museum Store, Eat Local, The Flourish Collection, Fresh Food Revolution, La Pasta, Lucca, Marx Foods, Pear Delicatessen, Picnic, Poggi Bonsi, Roses Bakery, Relish Fine Foods, Savour, Sugarpill, Watson Kennedy, and through Full Circle. Dean & Deluca is now distributing them nationally.
Megan Hill is a freelance food and travel writer based in Seattle.