Working with family doesn’t always spark the most aspirational images: think the insanity of the Osbournes, Kardashians, Trumps (gasp), and Lohans. But when it comes to making chocolate-covered toffee for Laurie Freeman Pauker, keeping business in the family is sweet.
Laurie & Sons started in 2013 when the New York Department of Economic Development opened kitchen incubator spaces in Harlem’s La Marqueta. Neither Pauker nor her three sons — Mike (24), Johnny (21), and Andrew (19) — had ever worked with candy professionally before, but she had noticed the community spirit surrounding small food businesses and was inspired to take the plunge with her treats. “There’s something about food that’s extremely communal, where people are willing to share and talk,” she says. “It’s not like other fields I’ve worked in, where people keep things close to the chest.”
Sharing their building with other small businesses Pipcorn and Hot Bread Kitchen, Laurie & Sons now makes over 300 bags of toffee a day during the busy season.
“Toffee isn’t something I made as a kid,” Pauker explains. “I just started trying to make it for my own pleasure, and the more I tried, the more comfortable I became with getting things to the right temperature and turning it out. I’ve had many failed batches and weird things can happen, but there’s something exciting and always challenging about toffee. I feel great when it turns out right.”
“It helps that mom’s tough,” Mike boasts. “Her hands are impervious to burns.”
For a young company, their growth has been rapid. Their “Dangerously Delicious Black Licorice Chocolate Toffee” won a gold medal in the Outstanding Chocolate category at this year’s Specialty Food Association SOFI awards, and the Fancy Food trade show got them in touch with enough suppliers to extend their outreach. Whereas they once only set up in New York’s pop-up markets and at Smorgasburg, they now ship out nationally.
They’re still a small artisanal candy company though, and that’s the way they like it. Their growth has allowed them to increase the quality of their ingredients more than anything. They source two kinds of fair-trade chocolate from Guittard: a dark chocolate and a milk chocolate made with 42% cacao; a bit higher content than most milk chocolates, it adds more depth to the final result. Butter comes from upstate, sea salt from Maine, and licorice powder from a Midwestern company. “Licorice is a flavor that my grandfather used to give to me when I was a girl,” Pauker says. “They were licorice caramels, actually, which I haven’t seen in a while. It’s a flavor I love, and the smell kinds of permeates into you.”
Each batch of delicious black licorice, sea salt & pepper, Moroccan-spiced or milk chocolate sea salt candies starts with the toffee, of course. “There are as many recipes as you can imagine for toffee. Ours is made from butter, sugar, and a little baking powder. That’s it,” she says. Actually, it’s the flavorful additions to the base recipe that make their toffee a bit more unexpected and endearing: the Moroccan spice, licorice powder, sea salt, and black pepper are folded into each batch as well as decorated on top of the chocolate-robed candy.
The sugar, butter and seasonings are brought up to 311 degrees before baking powder is added to lighten the texture a touch. Then it’s poured out onto a table made of ten-gauge steel, strong enough to take the abuse and set to around 150 degrees via hot water hoses to keep the toffee pliable as it sets. Transferring is a team effort: one family member pours it on the table while others start moving and spreading. It’s then spread thin, cut into uniform rectangles, and stored for a maximum of 24 hours before being dipped in chocolate.
Dipping, evidently, is not a uniform task straight out of the gate. “You can tell who’s been dipping each tray, it’s like they have a signature,” Johnny says. “Maria pulls them off off the fork straighter, so her lines are horizontal. Mom pulls them off on a diagonal. Aunt Didi pulls them to the side, and hers have a little foot on one side from being gently moved on the tray.” Their topping designs differ in ways only the family would most likely notice, too, but all chocolates are trimmed and made nearly uniform before packaging.
Once complete, each 15-pound batch of toffee makes 180 bags of candy that will last four to six months, depending on how well they’re stored. The team makes two batches daily during their busy season, working in day and night shifts.
They find challenges in things like the weather (this unseasonably warm, humid December is not great for candy-making), the physical exertion of cutting stickers, stamping and bagging chocolates, and generally trying to reinvent “one of the most outdated candies you can imagine,” according to Johnny. “This is both a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It’s an outdated product, but we’re offering really unique versions with flavors that aren’t explored elsewhere. People don’t easily jump to try it, but when they do, they really like it.”
Being a local product helps, too, and each bag is stamped with a “Made in Harlem” seal to prove it. “I think people are interested in where things come from and a sense of place,” Pauker says. “We’re proud to be up here. There’s so much going on. I think it’s cool to have another place in New York City that makes a mark.” Johnny agrees: “It helps put this area on the map. There are a lot of really interesting, cool things going on up here that people aren’t focusing on compared to what’s going on in Bushwick or the Village. Harlem is going to be the next place to blow up as far as what’s coming out of the neighborhood, and we want to be a part of it.”
While they continue to grow, they’ll also continue to work as a family. Employees Maria and Jorgelio and Laurie’s sister Diedre roll, cut, dip and package. The night owl of the group, Johnny covers night shifts. A writer, Mike helps with marketing and press releases. “There are always going to be squabbles, but we get along,” he says. “I would describe mom’s management style as very relaxed. And I think the family dynamic is such that none of us will take advantage of that because we all want to see this succeed.”