Not all candy men are born and raised in the business.
Mark Graves started his career in banking before pursing the business opportunity that was literally at his doorstep.
He grew up eating his mother’s homemade toffee with his brother Scott, in their home in Chapel Hill, N.C. and despite frequent suggestions to sell the candy, his mom was hesitant.
It was only when Karen Graves read an article in the local newspaper about a specialty foods market called A Southern Season that she decided to plunge into candy manufacturing. She brought a sample of her toffee to the candy manager, who almost immediately told her to start producing.
Chapel Hill Toffee made its retail debut in 2006. Around the same time, Mark lost his banking job. After watching his mother work furiously to produce enough toffee for the holidays, he decided to help her out.
Together, Mark and Karen tweaked the recipe of the toffee to increase shelf life, dark chocolate quality, and the freshness of the pecans. Chapel Hill Toffee begins with a thick layer of traditional English toffee that’s then hand coated on both sides with a blend of dark chocolates. The smooth layers are finished off with the sprinkling of fresh pecans that gives Chapel Hill Toffee its iconic look.
Though Mark had no experience in the candy industry, the people at A Southern Season were more than willing to give him advice. And, his uncle, who works for BestSweet, a candy manufacturer, arranged a meeting with the ceo so Mark could get insider advice.
While their business has quickly expanded to more than 25 retail locations and an online store, Chapel Hill Toffee is still crafted in small batches by mother and son in order to maintain quality.
The success of Chapel Hill Toffee has allowed the business to move to a commercial space and increase production. But even after that transition last fall, Mark and Karen carefully control batch size: their goal, after all, is to share quality toffee with as many people as possible.
What did you think you would be when you grew up?
A professional golfer.
Name one of your favorite movies.
Batman: The Dark Knight
Describe your perfect dream vacation.
My perfect vacation would be to an exotic beach-front house in the Caribbean with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. I would love to enjoy fresh, local seafood each day and have access to a boat for sailing and snorkeling.
What book are you currently reading?
City of Thievesby David Benioff.
Aside from a family member, whom would you most want to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Bear Grylls from Man vs. Wild. I’m not much of an outdoorsman so hopefully Bear would help get us off the island and back home.
What is your pet peeve?
Picky eaters! It frustrates me when people are stubborn and afraid to branch out and try new flavors.
I’d give anything to meet:
Warren Buffett. I think he is a terrific businessman and I would love to pick his brain for a couple of hours and learn more about how and why he is giving away the fortune that he has accumulated over his lifetime.
The best piece of advice I’ve received:
Failure to plan is a plan to fail. I think this saying is especially true for small businesses. While you can’t plan for everything and you need to be flexible within the market, thinking ahead is the key to being prepared when opportunities arise.
What excites you most about your job?
Watching it grow and dreaming about the future. Our company started as a hobby in my mom’s kitchen and has now grown out of that kitchen to a commercial facility. It has been a lot of hard work, but seeing Chapel Hill Toffee grow has been a tremendous reward.