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Granby teen runs a caramel company from his family’s kitchen

  • Alex Hutchinson, 15, slices a batch of caramel in the kitchen of his Granby home. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alex Hutchinson, 15, slices a batch of caramel in the kitchen of his Granby home. At right, his mother, Karin Hutchinson, looks through a record book that documents his expenses and income. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alex Hutchinson, 15, slices a batch of caramel in the kitchen of his Granby home. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alex Hutchinson, 15, retrieves caramels from a wine fridge that he uses to maintain temperatures in his Granby home. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo



Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Vanilla sweetness comes first, bold and strong. It’s followed quickly by the subtle undertones of swirling coconut, which soon overpowers the vanilla and lingers long after the caramel’s crinkly wrapper has been discarded.

Alex’s Caramel Company’s candies have a complex flavor with intense sweetness up front that’s followed by a smooth aftertaste. They’re so good it’s hard to imagine that each one is handmade by 15-year-old Alex Hutchinson in the kitchen of his parents’ Granby home.

“It definitely took a long time to figure out exactly how to do it,” Hutchinson said, sitting at the kitchen table and remembering what led him to start the business last fall. “I’ve always really liked making things. When I find something I want to make, I obsess over it. I was obsessing over caramels for like a week or so. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was three years ago or so.”

Hutchinson, who is homeschooled by parents Karin and Gordon Hutchinson along with siblings Andrew, 17, Elizabeth, 17, and Nathan, 11, spent those three years perfecting his recipe and navigating required permits. Before the South Hadley Farmers Market closed for the summer, Hutchinson was a regular vendor there.

When not making caramels, he leads an active life skiing, sculling and cooking. And while he doesn’t earn a lot of money selling caramels, he makes enough to cover expenses and earn a small profit.

“I sell them by quantity,” Hutchinson said, noting the rates of three for $2, six for $3 and a dozen for $5. “My family likes to eat caramels, too, so if I have a bad batch, it goes somewhere.”

A nuanced art

As he talked, Hutchinson sliced into a thin sheet of caramel. This batch is an experimental recipe, he said, holding up a strip of the golden candy. It’s made with two teaspoons of rosemary and Herdsman Cheese from Chase Hill Farm in Warwick. At the first bite, a hint of cheese emerges gradually, mingling with stronger overtones of salt and sugar.

“It’s hard to get (the cheese) to melt in. In the future, I’m going to cook it a little bit slower,” Hutchinson said.

Making caramels is a nuanced art, in part because they don’t contain many ingredients. Hutchinson’s caramels are made with butter, brown sugar, corn sugar, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract and salt, he said. He made his first batch by following a recipe he found online. Since then, he’s made adjustments and added in other flavors, based on his personal preference, including espresso, made with locally roasted coffee from Surf-n-Dogs in South Hadley, chai made with ground tea and coconut made from flavoring. Flavors that he’s still working on include an orange cardamom and a ginger caramel.

“Most people use heavy cream ... but I prefer the taste of sweetened condensed milk, even though it comes from a can. I think it’s very tasty,” he said.

Initially, Hutchinson decided to use sweetened condensed milk because it has a long shelf life, and he’s not yet old enough to drive to the store by himself.

Another key ingredient in his caramels is the vanilla extract, which Hutchinson makes himself in the basement by soaking Madagascar vanilla beans in vodka. He led the way down a staircase to the cellar and pointed out a shelf in a pantry area that was laden with his cooking supplies and a few bottles of distilling extract.

“The secret is to use really good quality vanilla extract. I make it myself, but there are good brands out there,” he said. “You could also use vanilla bean paste.”

One batch makes about 120 caramels, each of which is hand-wrapped by Hutchinson. On average, he makes about two batches a week.

“It’s very time-consuming. And, because I’m the sole proprietor of the business, I cannot have anyone else legally wrap them or cut them for me, because I wouldn’t be following my permit,” he said.

For one batch of caramels, he said, it usually takes about an hour to cook the sugar and make the actual caramel, a few more hours to chill them in a wine cooler that monitors temperature, and another hour or so to cut and package them.

Getting started

Starting a business isn’t easy. Posted on a cork board above the table upstairs is a residential kitchen permit from the town, one of the many legal hurdles that Hutchinson had to overcome before launching his business.

Figuring out what he needed to do was hard, he said, because no one in his immediate social sphere had started a small business before.

He made friends at the South Hadley Farmers Market, which is about a 1½ miles from his house, and asked other vendors for advice.

“When he wanted to do this business, it was sort of like, ‘He’ll give up,’” said Karin Hutchinson, while paging through a book of her son’s expenses, which she documents for him. “He opened for business, and we thought ‘He might get a few sales from the cute kid factor,’ but then he became profitable.”

Initially, Alex Hutchinson paid for permitting expenses and a required ServSafe food safety class with some of his own savings and a $150 loan from his parents. Now, nearly a year later, he’s paid back the loan and runs a profitable, albeit small, caramel business. Since starting sales last fall, Hutchinson said he has made hundreds of dollars in profit.

“He’s good with customer service and figuring it out, and he’s very conscientious. I keep thinking I don’t know where this is going to go,” Karin Hutchinson said.

Before heading out to the farmers market, Hutchinson estimates the number of caramels he’ll sell, to make the right quantity beforehand. He factors in variables like the time of year or the day’s temperature.

“Weather is an issue, especially in the summer, because everything melts,” Hutchinson said.

While selling at the South Hadley Farmers Market, Hutchinson has built a base of repeat customers, some of whom even follow him to other events. He has also been approached by a few area businesses interested in selling his products, including South Hadley’s Tower Theaters. However, his permit won’t allow him to sell wholesale, and he’s not sure yet if that’s what he wants.

“Do I really want to get wholesale, commit to wrapping all the time, and sell at these bigger markets?” Hutchinson said. “It’s something I’m still trying to figure out; how often I’d like to do it. It’s definitely something I enjoy, but it’s a lot of work to keep up with.”

Hutchinson said he has considered hiring help.

“I’ve learned how frustrating it is, sometimes, to follow all of the rules and still make money,” he said. “It’s very hard to figure out, when you’re small, how to pay someone minimal wage.”

Looking ahead, Hutchinson said he’d like to eventually study something to do with agriculture and food in college, but doesn’t know if he’ll continue with the caramel business after high school. More immediately, Hutchinson said that he’s looking for other markets in the area where he can sell his caramels.

“It would be my dream to go to a bigger market, like Amherst or Northampton, which is more competitive and has more people,” Hutchinson said. So far, though, “it’s been very rewarding.”

Caramel Recipe

This is the original caramel recipe Hutchinson found online, slightly adapted.

Ingredients:

1 cup butter

2¼ cups brown sugar, firmly packed

1½ tsp. salt

1 cup light corn syrup

1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk

1 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. chai spice

Melt the butter. Add in the brown sugar, chai and salt, mixing well. Stir in the corn syrup. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly.

Cook and stir over medium heat until the candy reaches a firm ball stage (at 245 degrees). This will take 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove the candy from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into a greased (9-inch by 13-inch) pan.

Let cool. Cut into 48 pieces with a sharp knife.