Seven years ago, interior designer Howard Slatkin lost more than 100 pounds, an accomplishment that required a radical re-examination of what he eats. He took a rather methodical approach to his diet: He visited a nutritionist. He studied medical journals. He started cooking his own meals. He wanted to understand how the food he consumed affected his body and mind.
But no matter how much knowledge he gained, or weight he lost, Slatkin could not silence that little voice in his head, so familiar to anyone who has dropped a lot of pounds. It kept saying, “I want something sweet. I want more,” says Slatkin, also a founder of Slatkin & Co., a candle and fragrance brand. “It’s like a drug addict.”
Although Slatkin couldn’t control the voice, he could control what he fed it — to a point. If his studies in food and human biology taught him anything, it’s that he should stick to organics whenever he craved a sweet. The only problem is, Slatkin doesn’t care for organic chocolate (“bitter,” he says), and the few organic hard candies on the market aren’t to his liking. “There wasn’t any I could find that was organic and delicious,” he says.
So Slatkin did what, ahem, anyone would do in such a situation: He started his own candy company. The way he talks about it, creating Torie & Howard Organic Hard Candy was just as difficult as designing million-dollar palatial spaces for the rich and famous in France, America and elsewhere. (Just think about that for a second . . . and about how touchy it must be to tell such clients that their taste needs, um, refinement.)
It took Slatkin and his business partner, Torie Burke, nearly two years to confront and overcome the complications of entering the U.S Department of Agriculture certified organic market, from things you might expect (documentation) to things you might not (food coloring). Their candies finally debuted in January at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and will make a return trip to the country’s premier showcase of specialty products at the Summer Fancy Food Show, to be held Sunday through Tuesday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District. (The show, alas, is not open to the public.)
But let’s back up: To start Torie & Howard Organic Hard Candy, Burke and Slatkin had to essentially put their other careers in deep freeze. The two had designed spaces together for 20 years — he as designer, she as color consultant with a separate firm — and had accumulated enough cash to start their business with added investments from friends and relatives. They figured it would take a year to launch.
As a founder of Slatkin & Co., Slatkin already understood what it took to bring fragrance products to market. Why should candy be any harder? But, as he notes, “a food product is a whole different world,” especially one that wants to slap a USDA “organic” label on its packaging. The organic certification process, Slatkin says, is “rigorous, expensive and time-consuming.”
“People in the food industry would tell us, ‘You don’t have to be so strict’ ” about the organic designation, Slatkin adds. “But that was non-negotiable.”
Despite the rigors of USDA certification, more specialty food companies appear to be entering the organic market, says Louise Kramer, communications director for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the nonprofit organization in Manhattan that produces the Fancy Food Shows. “There has been a 6.5 percent increase in exhibitors this year versus last summer who identify themselves as having natural/organic products,” Kramer writes via e-mail.
That figure is a little misleading: The rules for the USDA certified organic label are strictly defined; not so for the term “natural,” which can be widely applied to products without actually imparting much useful information to consumers. The government has no official definition for “natural.”
About 16.5 percent of the exhibitors at next week’s Fancy Food Show identify their products as either natural or organic, Kramer says, although NASFT doesn’t have data on which products are actually USDA certified organic.
To give you some idea of how difficult the organic certification can be for candymakers, consider one component of their product: food coloring. Most colorings used in food are artificial; food manufacturers typically use one (or more) of seven dyes certified by the Food and Drug Administration, says Bob Dukes, sales representative for the New Jersey-based International Foodcraft Corp., which produces food dyes.
Artificial colors are considerably cheaper than their organic counterparts, says Dukes. Five pounds of an artificial dye at IFC runs about $30, he says, compared to more than $50 for five pounds of organic colorings. What’s more, those prices don’t even take into account that artificial dyes are much more concentrated than organic food colorings. “You don’t need as much,” Dukes says.
Slatkin and Burke had no intention of using artificial dyes, of course, because of studies that link the coloring agents to learning disabilities in children. But even organic food colorings, derived from vegetables or spices, can pose a dilemma for manufacturers, notes Darryl Williams, technical specialist for Oregon Tilth, which certified Torie & Howard candies for the USDA National Organic Program. For example: An organic coloring agent, when added to acidic foods, will deteriorate and lose its color over time. Or the colorant may be sold only in liquid form and the product manufacturer wants powder.
That is why the USDA allows flexibility in the area of food coloring. If a company can provide documentation that it has tried three sources for an organic color but still can’t find a suitable one, it can turn to an approved non-organic alternative, Williams says. Thus, for example, in Torie & Howard’s pomegranate-and-nectarine candies, two out of the five coloring agents are non-organic: red cabbage and purple carrots, alongside the organic black carrots, black currants and apples.
That list of food colorings for one product should give you an idea of how meticulous Burke and Slatkin are. They tested more than 35 flavor combinations before deciding on the four citrus-heavy candies they now sell: pomegranate and nectarine; d’Anjou pear and cinnamon; blood orange and honey; and pink grapefruit and Tupelo honey.
The small, individually wrapped candies (12 calories per pop)taste less like the super-sweet Life Savers of childhood and more like tart, concentrated blasts of reduced fruit juices.
“We tried to mix in some herbs in order to be similar to some current jams,” Burke says. “But it just didn’t translate in hard candy. We found that it would be too ‘left field.’ It wouldn’t appeal to most people.”
Because Burke and Slatkin are designers, not flavor chemists, they focused a lot of attention on packaging. They wanted to create an experience for hard candy lovers that would, in a small way, mimic the luxury environments that Burke and Slatkin used to design for the wealthy. The candies are available in two-ounce tins ($3.99 to $4.99, whether retail or online) that look simultaneously elegant, old-fashioned and contemporary — like French candy tins or designer snuff boxes for a generation hooked on sugar, not tobacco.
The candies are individually wrapped to avoid the main thing that Slatkin dislikes about those mints you can buy in small containers at the local CVS: Anyone can paw through them, germy fingers and all.
If all of this sounds too obsessive by half, Slatkin says it’s for a reason. With approximately 180,000 products expected to be showcased at next week’s Fancy Food Show, it’s not enough to have a flavorful or colorful product. Distributors and specialty stores want to know that business structures are in place to produce and deliver the goods when called upon. Middlemen can sniff out disorganization like milk that’s past its expiration date.
Slatkin’s and Burke’s attention to detail has apparently paid off. They have lined up distributors that will get their products into stores nationwide. The candies are already available in all Peet’s Coffee & Tea outlets and Balducci’s stores; they are also available locally at Rodman’s.
A natural question arises here as Torie & Howard hard candies begin to trickle into the market: With obesity and diabetes on the rise, isn’t all this tempting designer candy a potentially troublesome development?
“Sweets are one of the joys of life. I can’t imagine a day without sweets,” says the man who lost 100 pounds. “The key is to do it in moderation.”