At the recent Madison Food & Wine Show, Christine’s Toffee samples were a popular hit. Company co-owner Leanne Cordisco sampled pieces of their now-famous Bacon Toffee in the Willy Street Co-op booth. Through her many in-person product demonstrations, Leanne has grown accustomed to people assuming that she is “the” Christine, so she was happy to sit down for an interview to tell us more about the candy, its namesake and her influence on this new and novel snack company.
Originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, Leanne says one of her first memories is of cooking with her mother, specificallyrolling meatballs. She attributes her life-long passion for cooking and feeding people to her Sicilian heritage. She later followed collegiate paths through biomedical engineering and business. Repeatedly finding herself gravitating toward the kitchen and cooking for friends and family given during her free time, Leanne confesses, “While growing up and all through high school and college, it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to own a restaurant. To me, cooks are like rock stars, and in my culture, food equals love.”
Toffee meets chocolate
After making her home in Madison and spending two decades in the field of biomedicine and corporate training, Leanne’s business professor Denis Collins introduced her to legendary local business owner Sam Jacobsen. Sam opened his first PDQ Food Store on University Avenue in Madison in 1949, and subsequently built the PDQ chain of convenience stores into one of the most prolific of its kind in the U.S. In 1991, after selling the company to his sons, Sam continued to encourage and enable aspiring entrepreneurs using his own “slow money” approach.
Leanne says she wasn’t expecting to strike up more than a friendship, but by the end of their first meeting, Sam was inviting her back to continue the discussion about her idea for a candy company, telling her she was “on to something.” Leanne recalls, “I don’t know what I did, but for the universe to drop that gift, wrapped up in a bow, in my lap, there was only one answer; it was. ‘Yes, of course.’”
Their company, Popular Snacks, Inc., was founded in 2007. Their first collaborative product, however, was somewhat of a delicious failure that never made it out of the development stages. The chocolate-covered popcorn ball was a recreation of one of Sam’s favorite treats made by his mother Christine. Unable to perfect the popcorn ball recipe for retail sale, Leanne turned to another of Christine’s recipes and has used it to develop a growing selection of gourmet toffees.
Although Christine’s original toffee recipe was an excellent start, Leanne was resolved to create a recipe that would satisfy both sweet and salty tastes in one snack. After weeks of experimentation and testing on friends and family, she discovered, among other things, the delicious combination she had in mind.
Each small, handmade batch starts with Grade AA butter (lots and lots of butter) from Shullsburg, Wisconsin, and sugar which are the combined with other ingredients in copper kettles and are attentively stirred while cooking. Of her production methods, Leanne says, “We are a very simple production—all natural, no preservatives. Basically, but on a much larger scale, we do everything you would do at home.” After reaching the correct temperature, any extra ingredients for special varieties are added (nuts, coffee, etc.) before the hot toffee is poured out onto thick, marble candy-making tables. Next, precisely-sized French sea salt crystals are scattered across the quickly cooling toffee and tempered (melted) Belgian chocolate is poured over one side of the candy, ultimately creating a taste that packsa wonderful ripple effect of multi-faceted flavors. Lastly, the toffee is cut into pieces, hand-packaged and ready for delivery.
Paid forward, in full
“This whole company started,” Leanne says, “because my business partner was at a point in his life where he could fund entrepreneurs; he could take chances like that, and he wanted to honor his mom.” By providing financing and moral support as well as introductions to valuable connections in the industry, Sam was offering Leanne an extraordinary opportunity. Explaining the one caveat to Sam’s offer, Leanne explains, “No matter what, Sam or Sam’s estate would always control ten percent of the company and that money would be put into a fund to help other entrepreneurs. So his legacy for me will be to find someone else and help them with that ten percent and give somebody else a chance at their dream.” Sadly, Sam passed away in late January 2010. Leanne says of the significance of this man’s life, “He was not just a financier but also a champion, a mentor and something of a father figure who just lived and breathed business.” She assures, “Just because Sam, physically, isn’t here anymore doesn’t mean that he’s not going to be a part of this company as it grows. His principles will stay with us.”
Professor Denis Collins adds, “Sam was an amazing entrepreneur, following through on his dreams and turning them into reality. Most importantly, he inspired others to do likewise. He was very generous with his time and welcomed the opportunity to have entrepreneurial students pick his mind on how to turn a potential consumer service into a profitable venture. His contributions will be missed.”
Leanne, who spent hours listening to and learning from Sam during their weekly visits says she recorded several golden nuggets of information and advice from him, including the conversation they had after the popcorn ball idea was scratched. “We hit a brick wall,” she admits, “and for him it was just a game and he’d say, ‘So, you just hit a road block, now how are we going to get around it?’ It was never, ‘Oh no, this is the end of it.’ He never looked at the negative side. He would say, ‘This is a game; this is a maze, and if you’re going to succeed, you have to find your way around the hurdles.’”
“What I’m making,” Leanne says, “is a super-premium candy, and I want people to feel like our candies are a treat, so I want to make sure that what goes into it is exactly right.” Bacon from Usinger’s in Milwaukee and coffee from Kickapoo Coffee in Baraboo are among the many local foods and vendors Leanne has tried and tested before approving them for use in the toffees. The pistachio toffee has become a clear favorite but the pecan and cashew varieties are also doing well and we can look forward to a new flavor very soon. Production of the toffees is currently taking place at the James J. Chocolate Shop in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, however Leanne reports that she’s looking for a space in the Madison area and plans to hire for positions here. Look for Christine’s Toffees in the front of the store on the register displays.