The Guy With the Goodies
Former High-Techie Finds Sweet Success in New Candy Business
by Colleen Lent
Hampton Union, November 25, 2003[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
After 30 years in the corporate world, providing high tech communication products to financial companies, John Watkins traded in his title as data man for candy man. The millennium brought a lethargic economy, which was then kicked while it was down by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But when Watkins was laid off from a management position, he saw it as an opportunity. He dusted off a professional dream he kept stored in his mental back pocket for many years, and bought Hutchinson's Ye Kandy Shope, a family-owned confectioner, originally established in Boston by Jesse Hutchinson in 1904.
The store, renamed Elements of Taste, is relocating from Rochester to Hampton.
Approaching his second year as a small-business owner, Watkins reflects back on his former job.
"It's funny, one part says I miss that industry" he says. "One part of me doesn't miss it at all"
In any case, Watkins says his corporate experience gave him a host of transferable business management skills, which is resulting in a store relocation, product line expansion, and customer base extension. "I understand profitability," Watkins says.
Elements of Taste was operating out of a 1,500 square foot site in Rochester. It wasn't long before Watkins and Dick Hutchinson, a descendant of the original founder, experienced growing pains.
This year, Watkins bought the Atlantic News building on Lafayette Road, resulting in a gain of 2,500 square feet. Currently, the retail side of the new site is open to the public. Meanwhile, a former garage on the property is being renovated to serve as a kitchen, accommodating the equipment of the trade, ranging from over-sized copper pots for melting and mixing to a cotton candy machine for special events, to a corn popper for six varieties of caramel corn.
A back window in the main shop will allow customers to see employees working behind the scenes, much like Santa's elves, transforming simple ingredients or materials into something sweet.
"It's an art," Watkins says. This business is very labor intensive and small-batch oriented."
Watkins quickly learned that a degree or two on a candy thermometer is critical. He discovered the special packaging for caramel corn keeps it from going stale. However, if used for fudge, it encourages mold. Watkins said he's fortunate Dick Hutchinson manages the kitchen, as the senior employee has been making penuche, caramel corn, fudge, and other confections since his adolescent days. "He's a master," Watkins says.
The store's new name — Elements of Taste — reflects its evolving product line. "We're trying to experiment," Watkins says. In addition to the traditional Hutchinson recipes, Watkins is introducing a host of retail items and specialty candy products. The room in the front of the store contains a display of giftware ranging from picnic baskets with place settings, to reclaimed wine and vodka bottles flattened into serving trays, to jars of grilled butternut ginger pesto. The room in the back of the store hosts an ice cream freezer with well-known commercial names. Neighboring racks offer generic penny candy. The front counter display case includes trays of sugar-free selections, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, cappuccino truffles, and pecan caramel patties.
Watkins says individual consumer purchases contribute to about 1 percent of the store's sales. He adds that the brick and mortar site has marketing value, as it encourages sampling and word of mouth advertising, which often leads to larger commercial accounts and orders. In October, Mrs. New Hampshire brought armloads of Hutchinson's caramel corn to the pageant, which was held in Hawaii, as a gift from her home state for the 50 delegates. "She found our product somewhere," Watkins says. "We were quite honored with that."
In fewer than two years, Elements of Taste has expanded its network of 10 commercial stores to 300. "It's a huge part," Watkins says The majority of the wholesale customers are in New England and New York, including country stores and gift shops in Portsmouth Rochester, and Exeter. The 20 customers scattered across other regions of the country provide a safety net, said Watkins. Candy stores are traditionally seasonal with sales peaks during warm weather months and holidays, he said, and extending the commercial customer base ensures a steady cash flow throughout the year.
Corporate to casual
Watkins says as a corporate employee wearing a suit and tie, he was invisible. As a small business owner, donning casual slacks and an apron, he's well-known as the guy with the goodies. In addition, he's able to spend more time with his daughters, Stacey and April, who work with him at the store. "It really is a fun business because everyone loves candy," he says.
Elements of TasteOwner: John Watkins
Address: 893 Lafayette Road, Hampton
Web address: www.hutchinsonscandy.com