A lot of people study marketing. Not a lot of people have the guts to ditch the studying and jump into a real-world marketing opportunity based on a killer family toffee recipe. But that’s exactly what Dave’s Sweet Tooth founder Andrew Chmielewski did.
“I don’t claim to be any kind of business savant – I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just knew there was a product that people liked and I figured I’d give it a shot,” Chmielewski said.
Andrew’s memories of toffee go back several years when his father Dave (that’s right, there is actually a Dave behind Dave’s Sweet Tooth) would make small batches of toffee in his Michigan home and give them to friends. Andrew was just starting college, but remembers that people started to call the house and request the treats.
His father always liked cooking and baking and seeing people’s reactions to his creations, Andrew said, but this was different. Eventually Dave began selling the toffee at local craft shows and it garnered even more attention. Finally Andrew decided that there was real potential for a business, but his father was less enthusiastic about getting involved himself.
“He said that he’d just retired, he wanted to play golf. He was good,” Andrew said. “So that’s where I started in.”
Andrew had restaurant and retail experience, but the biggest point in his favor was his education in marketing. He decided to drop out of school and take what he’d learned so far and apply it to a real-life situation.
While Andre has built off of his dad’s original recipe for the toffee itself, he’s gotten a lot more creative with additives, like peanut butter, coffee beans, and cherries. And it’s all handmade with no artificial ingredients to this day, just like Dave made it.
But just because every piece of Dave’s Sweet Tooth toffee is made by hand doesn’t mean the company hasn’t hit it big. Just over this last holiday season Andrew said one corporate client ordered 400 boxes to be shipped out to various companies including Vera Wang, Crate and Barrel, and Express.
The biggest thing Andrew has learned by starting his own food brand? The difficulty of getting the ingredients you need. Much of the ingredients that go into Dave’s Sweet Tooth toffee are commodities, and prices can change dramatically.
“People think you can just start a business and make money, but there’s so much you have to pay for,” Andrew said.
Don’t assume you can just figure out the aspects of running a business that you struggle with, Andrew advised – find someone who knows how to do it to make sure it’s done right.
“There’s so much more that goes into selling a food product. The accounting, the branding, the packaging, ordering ingredients,” he said. “A lot of people try to do it all themselves and they just run themselves ragged.”
But Andrew is quick to add that though it’s not easy, he gets a lot of fun out of his job.
“At the end of the day, I make candy for a living so I can’t take it too seriously,” he said. “It’s a great gig.”
Dave’s Sweet Tooth toffee is different for a lot of reasons, according to Andrew. Not only the taste and the absence of preservatives, but the texture. A lot of people believe they don’t like toffee because it’s traditionally made extremely hard and gets stuck in your teeth, he said – his toffee doesn’t do that.
His personal favorite is the brand’s newest flavor, peanut butter. The most popular flavor among customers can vary widely, he said, although dark chocolate is probably the biggest seller.
And what does Dave himself think of his toffee making it to the big leagues? Andrew said that his dad is still surprised that the company has come so far, and has remarked that the toffee tastes better than his original recipe.
“He gets a kick out of telling people he’s Dave from Dave’s Sweet Tooth,” Andrew said. “He’d give it all away if he could.”
And Dave still makes toffee in his own kitchen to this day – he’s experimenting with new flavors like pretzel and blueberry. Unfortunately these are usually so popular with friends and family that Dave’s Sweet Tooth gets bombarded with requests for these flavors.
“He loves to do it and he comes up with some interesting things, but sometimes I have to be like “no, stop!” said Andrew. “We have to take his little pot away and hide it from him.”
Andrew said it’s still a thrill to be a sort of miniature celebrity as the owner of the company. Recently he stopped at a convenience store on his way to a food show in northern Michigan and was excited to see Dave’s Sweet Tooth on the shelves.
“I’m like a modern-day Gene Wilder,” he said. “I just need a top hat and a cane.”
We’re excited to feature Dave’s Sweet Tooth Dark Chocolate Toffee in our January gluten-free box. If you’d like to try more for yourself, check out all the flavors in our snack shop! And tell us what other snack maker you’d like to find out more about!