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Photos Peter Carrillo

Le Caramel

by Dan Sanchez on April 10, 2018, 09:13 am MDT

El Cajon, CA

Founded 2009

Employees: 10

Privately Owned

Industry: Food & Beverage

Products: Caramel Candy

A chance meeting with one of the best caramel makers in France led to a California business that today makes 400 tons of sumptuous candy annually.

Christen and Vincent Kugener were a happily married couple living in France and working in the financial sector. In 2008, after deciding they wanted a life change, Christen’s dad, who was a doctor, introduced them to one of his patients who happened to be one of the best caramel makers in France.

"At that time, my husband Vincent and I wanted to move and start our own business," says co-founder Christen Kugener. "We met with this great caramel maker and ended up touring around France with him. He wanted to pass along his candy-making skills. We didn’t know anything about making caramel but we love sweets, and the mortgage securities industry was boring, so we thought we would try it."

Learning the craft, the Kugener’s moved to San Diego, California in 2009 and attempted to sell their caramels at fancy food shows. "It was hard to master, but making caramel was fun and there was pride in making your own product," says Kugener. "We loved the fact that everybody loves caramel and it brought a smile to their face."

The Kugener’s moved the business again to El Cajon, California where they continue to expand. "We slowly began gaining interest from wholesalers, stores, and chains. Luckily we have grown every year," says Kugener. "The first year we made 200 lbs. of caramel, now with 10 people, we’re making 400-tons.”

Their success stems from how the caramel is cooked and making smaller batches that are more flavorful. "We use 65-year old copper kettles, and the technology is over 100-years old, "says Kugener. "We only use non-GMO ingredients and pure cane sugar." The techniques they learned in France has given their product a unique taste that gives them an advantage over other caramel manufacturers. "We cook our caramel for much longer time than industrial caramels. This allows us to concentrate on flavors and not have to add anything else," says Kugener. "It’s a step-by-step process that industrial caramel manufacturers can’t duplicate."

The success of their caramels took time to grow but the Kugener’s still love to engage new clients by face-to-face meetings. "We still market in an old-fashioned way, at trade shows and meeting with new clients, but we opened a factory store and we’re now reaching the customer directly," says Kugener. "It’s been a success and I really enjoy the boutique atmosphere. It’s allowed more people to taste the difference of our caramel versus what they’ve tried before and has led to a growing customer base."

Another one of the joys of their business is that it gives the Kugener’s the ability to work with people with disabilities. "It was very important for Vincent and me to help people with disabilities to get work," says Kugener. "We had some experience seeing companies successfully work with people with down syndrome and we wanted to provide this effort as well. They excel at repetitive tasks such as sorting, labeling, and placing candy in bags that are normally difficult to automate. We partner with various organizations and they provide supervisors to make sure they stay on task. It works really well for us and we love them as our employees."

Needs: "We’re always needing more time," says Kugener. We want to be online more and get more equipment to expand. That way we’d be able to make and sell more candy. I don’t want to be a large company, however, I want to control everything and keep a handle on the production."

Challenges: "We are still a seasonal product where most of our business is done during the second half of the year," says Kugener. "People like to eat caramel during Christmas time, and our pumpkin spice is a big seller. We’re trying to make it less seasonal with time and technology we think we can do that."

Opportunities: "The internet is a huge opportunity for us to do more in local markets," says Kugener. "Our retail store has shown us that. We realized we still haven’t reached our potential here in San Diego. Our region has so many tourists and it’s a market that still provides opportunities that we haven’t conquered yet."

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