On a recent Thursday afternoon, Liz Gutman and Jen King were in the eye of a salted caramel storm. “Now’s the time that everyone wants to buy candy,” King said, reading the thermometer that sprouted from the large pot of hot caramel she was stirring. “In the summer, people don’t want to carry a candy bar around; even I don’t want to eat anything heavy. But there was a serious uptick in September.”
That uptick has translated to some long hours for Gutman and King, who together formed Liddabit Sweets this May. Working out of a Bed-Stuy production space they share with Sweet Deliverance (King has a part-time job there), they’re currently filling orders for the holidays, preparing for this Sunday’s New Amsterdam Market, and learning how to grow a business that they initially intended to serve only as a side project to their other endeavors.
“We were talking about doing this down the line, in a few years,” King says. She and Gutman met as students of the French Culinary Institute’s pastry program, from which they graduated in August 2008. “Liz and I were partners for two or three units, and we worked really well together.” After they graduated, King, who was doing an externship at Per Se, planned to be a pastry chef, while Gutman, who interned with Rhonda Kave at Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, wanted to work in France. Thanks to the economy, she stayed put, and before long she and King began toying with the idea of making a product they could sell at the farmers market in their spare time.
“We checked out other places, right around the time that Bond Street and Bespoke opened, and thought, New York really doesn’t need another bon bon, but how hard would it be to reverse engineer a Snickers bar?” says Gutman, who was also eager to do some old-style confectioners work. So the two placed a call to the Brooklyn Flea’s Eric Demby, “and before you know it, we’re filing paperwork,” recalls King.
The story of Liddabit is in many ways the story of the Brooklyn artisanal food phenomenon: take a store-bought food and figure out how to make it better, with high-quality and/or organic, local ingredients. While just about every other comestible has had its image revamped in such a manner, King and Gutman have been the first to tap into the previously underexploited artisanal candy bar market. Their bars, like the PB&J and the King, which riffs on Elvis’s peanut butter and banana sandwiches, marry the comforting familiarity of a regular chocolate bar with a small-batch, homemade sensibility.
That said, they’re less a product of earnest philosophy than their creators’s sense of humor and personal food fantasies: “Every joke gets turned into something,” Gutman says, referencing the pork skin slurtles (think turtles made with beer) she and King have been testing. The two have been dreaming up their so-called Baked collection, which will feature bars with flavors like coffee-and-doughnuts and pancake, and are busy working on a line of Easter marshmallow chicks that will come coated in three kinds of sugar. They’re also planning to remake the Butterfinger and Three Muskateers.
They’re also figuring out how to grow their business. While they received invaluable help and advice from women like Kave and Anne Saxelby, Gutman and King — neither of whom ever took a business course — are learning as they go. “Food’s tricky because of licensing, certification, inspections, and legal stuff,” says Gutman. “It’s like oh crap, now we need this; you cross one off, and tack on another. But you can’t kill yourself over everything you can’t do immediately.”
Chief on their list of things to do are launch their online store and, possibly, a brick and mortar incarnation too. “We need more space for storage,” Gutman says. “Ideally, it would be a storefront with a little counter.”
With any luck, that will happen sometime in the new year. In the meantime, the two are grateful for what they’ve managed to accomplish in such a short time.
“At a restaurant, your job is to do exactly what they want you to do,” King say. “In pastry, you’re always second tier unless you’re Johnny Iuzzini.” Working on her own, with Gutman, “is great. You’re not worrrying about being compared with other people, and there aren’t egos in the way. And it’s nice to know you’re working for your own vision.”