In the early 1970’s, Jim and Elaine Ahlgren started making toffee from a handed-down recipe. Elaine made her own modifications to the recipe, and she and Jim gave the toffee away as Christmas gifts. As time went on, they taught their three daughters, Anita, Linda and Janet, how to make it. When Elaine died, Jim continued to make it and they all were giving it to family and friends as gifts for special occasions.
In December 2004 Janet’s sons’ school held a holiday boutique. Janet offered to provide individual pieces of toffee for sale at the boutique bake sale. Instead, she was invited to sell bags of her toffee. “I called my dad, and he agreed to help me. We made 70 pounds, and sold it all.”
That started something. People began calling for more toffee to give as gifts. “Our family discussed the idea of making the toffee as a business,” Janet says. “We had always agreed that we wouldn’t give the recipe out, just in case.” That Christmas, when they were all together, they came up with the company name. “We called it Elaine’s Toffee Co. after my mother.”
So, in January 2005 Janet began researching the steps for starting a company, food regulations and permits, and commercial kitchens, and she took a food safety certification course.
Anita, who lives in Rockford, Illinois, was able to rent time in a commercial kitchen, so the first event after the formal formation of their business was the Rockford Junior League’s Decorators Showcase. “We became a big hit in Rockford!” Janet laughs. “That’s how we got mentioned in the Chicago Tribune.”
Janet, Linda and their dad, who all live in Northern California, were using a restaurant kitchen in the Bay Area when the restaurant was closed, but their time in it was limited, so they could only produce about 150 pounds a week. They were able to do small festivals, but it was difficult to get retail accounts. “We realized that we were going to burn out, but once we got started with this, we weren’t about to give up.”
It was a challenge to find a company that would make the toffee to the family’s standards, but after many interviews and much testing, a good match was found. The family is pleased that this allows them to sell to retail stores and handle online orders. “It’s the same recipe and the same quality.”
The company has remained a family affair. Janet handles the business end and website orders while her sisters and dad are the “marketing department”. They all take turns answering the phones. “Dad just turned 80 years old and he thoroughly enjoys the contact with the public. We all love this tribute to Mom.”