Last Updated: 15:38 March 28, 2012
BOULDER - If your sweet tooth is screaming for attention because you traded candy for a healthier lifestyle, JJ's Sweets may be the answer. Handmade in Boulder, JJ's Cocomels switch out dairy for coconut milk and substitute organic sweeteners for the traditional corn syrup.
The caramel candies are even gluten free and vegan.
When JJ Rademaekers first introduced his confections at the Boulder County Farmers' Market in April 2010, the reception "sealed the deal that it was going to be company for real," he said.
The candies are now sold on the JJ's Sweets web site as well as in more than 100 retail shops across Colorado, California and other spots nationally. Locations in Boulder include Ozo Coffee, Alfalfa's Market and Brewing Market.
"My original strategy was what I call following lattes," Rademaekers said. He figured that if people would spend $4 on coffee drinks, they'd be open to spending $1 on a piece of candy that's made with higher-quality ingredients.
"Most of our retail growth is from individual pieces sold in display jars," he added.
With three employees, Rademaekers keeps the candy cooking in the company's shared kitchen in east Boulder. The 2,100-square-foot site houses all production and shipping. The space includes a 400-square-foot area for storage and packaging.
Cooking small batches in 20-gallon copper kettles produces about 300 pounds of candy weekly, with about 450 pounds kept in inventory.
The small batches and shared space help keep overhead down until the company builds up sales, he explained, adding that his startup costs were about $20,000 - funded by his family.
"It allowed me to get equipment and ingredients and start the process, Rademaekers said. "I've had to give the company little loans along the way, but it's mainly running on profits."
Currently the company tallies about $15,000 monthly in sales.
"In spring, I realized I needed to bring in outside expertise," Rademaekers said. "There are so many options - a lot of different channels to consider."
Options include deciding markets to focus on for sales such as in coffee shops, natural foods stores and specialty gourmet shops.
To help him zero in on the best strategies for taking JJ's Sweets to the next level, Rademaekers recently began working with Bill Capsalis, manager of the Boulder Innovation Center's Natural & Organic Program.
"We look for companies that have an existing product or service that are early on in the process and yet focused," Capsalis said. "They have big decisions to make regarding growth strategies and are looking at things like staying local or going regional or national."
After hearing the status of JJ's Sweets, Capsalis put together a team of advisers who have experience in sales, marketing, retail, branding and design.
For $750 per month, with a suggested four- to six-month commitment, the team works with clients to help with issues like product development, presentation on the shelf and costing.
"At first I said 'yes' to all, but now I realize it's better to pick a channel," Rademaekers said. "I can make a Cocomel into any shape and size. But there's a best size and price point for channels, and one channel doesn't necessarily translate to other channels."
In addition to determining the best route to take in the size and channel area, Rademaekers expects to create a business plan that can attract funding with the help of his advisers.
Cocomels are available in four flavors - Original, Fleur de Sel (sea salt), Vanilla and Java as well as chocolate covered. An additional product - JJ's Unique Hard Candies - includes exotic flavors that range from India spice with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cayenne to lemon gingko with rosemary.
Individual candies start at about a dollar with gift boxes ranging up to $24.
Rademaekers partially credits his idea for JJ's Sweets to early roots in France where locally prepared, small production food was more of a staple.
Adding that experience to a decade with local band Cabaret Dios, Rademaekers refers to his new venture as another way to bring joy to people.
This time, however, it's with candy as the medium.