Founder Ellen Daehnick has engaged the aficionados of her artisan caramels as they shift to online shopping.

Photos courtesy Helliemae’s

When Daehnick wanted to build a facility for her specialty caramel company in 2014, the real estate and construction market was booming and she couldn’t find a contractor to build out her 2,500-square-foot kitchen, office, and retail store.

That’s when her husband, Chris, stepped up to the plate and became a licensed contractor so he could do the work for her. “It’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me,” says Daehnick, whose inspiration to start the company came from the memories of the desserts her mother.

Once construction was complete, she outfitted the space with equipment that was built in France in the 1950s to manufacture and wrap caramels the old-fashioned way.

There’s a reason for the traditional approach. Daehnick started Helliemae’s because she couldn’t find the product she craved: dark smoky caramels with a fresh, creamy texture. She started making caramels for her family, friends and co-workers and discovered that she wasn’t alone in her quest for a special salted caramel.

Helliemae’s makes five kinds of caramels year-round as well as limited-time seasonal caramels. The year-round flavors are Sea Salt (the most popular), Whiskey Love Bomb, Vanilla Vanilla, Espresso and Chili Palmer. The caramel sauces come in Sea Salt, Whiskey Love Bomb, Vanilla Vanilla and Chili Palmer. Small gift bags sell for $10 and cello bags with ribbon ties sell for $16 or $26. Helliemae’s also offers gift sets for $50.

Because Helliemae’s busy season is during the holidays, the facility doesn’t get used much between January and August, so Daehnick is working on finding clients that can use her facility for co-packing confectionery goods. She tested the concept with one client last summer.

Challenges: Leaving the obvious challenge of COVID aside, Daehnick says the most difficult aspect of her business is hiring people with the right temperament to safely make the caramels.

Daehnick says marketing, which is not one of her areas of expertise, also has proven to be challenging. Last year she invested in hiring Sparkset, an third-party digital marketing agency in Southern California, to help promote Helliemae’s.

The coronavirus pandemic also has thrown up some obstacles for Helliemae’s. The specialty candy maker hasn’t been able to procure the 9-ounce glass jars it uses for its caramel sauces from China since October. She’s been able to get the boxes for the caramels, but the price has increased. “I don’t like to switch vendors,” Daehnick says.

Opportunities: As much of a challenge as the pandemic has created for specialty food companies like Helliemae’s, it’s also created greater opportunities for such businesses to interact directly with the customers who have pivoted to online shopping. “There’s a bigger appetite among our customers to buy on the website that they hadn’t sought out before,” Daehnick says. “That gives us an opportunity to talk directly to our customers.”

Needs: Daehnick is looking for opportunities to interact with other founders of artisan food companies who she can learn from. “I want to find people who have done it and can help me figure it out,” Daehnick says. “It’s a little bit of a different challenge.”