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Red Kite Takes Flight: Thetford Candy Company Finds Sweet Success

  • Elaine and Mike McCabe clean up after packaging fresh chocolate-covered toffee with almonds to send to King Arthur Flour in the kitchen of Red Kite Candy in Thetford last week. The candy is sold across the rest of New England by Whole Foods and other retailers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Elaine and Mike McCabe clean up after packaging fresh chocolate-covered toffee with almonds to send to King Arthur Flour in the kitchen of Red Kite Candy in Thetford last week. The candy is sold across the rest of New England by Whole Foods and other retailers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Boxes of chocolate-covered toffee carry the Red Kite Candy logo. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Boxes of chocolate-covered toffee carry the Red Kite Candy logo. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Elaine McCabe wraps a batch of sea salt caramels by hand last week in the industrial kitchen at her home in Thetford, which doubles as the Red Kite Candy factory. McCabe and her husband, Mike, do everything from making the candy to packaging to delivery. “People don’t believe that I tie each and every bow on each one of our packages, but I really do,” McCabe said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Elaine McCabe wraps a batch of sea salt caramels by hand last week in the industrial kitchen at her home in Thetford, which doubles as the Red Kite Candy factory. McCabe and her husband, Mike, do everything from making the candy to packaging to delivery. “People don’t believe that I tie each and every bow on each one of our packages, but I really do,” McCabe said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mike and Elaine McCabe in the Red Kite kitchen. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Mike and Elaine McCabe in the Red Kite kitchen. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Elaine and Mike McCabe clean up after packaging fresh chocolate-covered toffee with almonds to send to King Arthur Flour in the kitchen of Red Kite Candy in Thetford last week. The candy is sold across the rest of New England by Whole Foods and other retailers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Boxes of chocolate-covered toffee carry the Red Kite Candy logo. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Elaine McCabe wraps a batch of sea salt caramels by hand last week in the industrial kitchen at her home in Thetford, which doubles as the Red Kite Candy factory. McCabe and her husband, Mike, do everything from making the candy to packaging to delivery. “People don’t believe that I tie each and every bow on each one of our packages, but I really do,” McCabe said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Mike and Elaine McCabe in the Red Kite kitchen. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Thetford Center — Elaine McCabe has been making candy almost as long as she can remember. At first it was just for gifts and to have around the house, but now she’s earning a living at it.

For years, she thought a lot about turning her skill into a business — after all she had a background in retail and marketing, her candy was appreciated by all who’d tried it and she was being encouraged to do so by friends and family. But things got in the way — raising a family and other priorities.

In 2007, after a bout with breast cancer, she decided the time was right to take the leap and fulfill her dream.

“While I was going through my treatment for breast cancer, I started really thinking seriously about setting up a candy company,” McCabe said last week. “I’d wanted to do it for a while, and it seemed like a good time.”

It took a couple of years to get things going — the three children needed to be a little older — but by 2009, Red Kite Candy was in full operation, using mostly local ingredients to produce caramels, toffees and nougats and developing locations to sell the candies.

For some businesses, McCabe’s starting date would have been considered ill-timed, during the worst economic downturn in decades with the highest unemployment in recent memory. However, although the timing couldn’t have been worse for many companies, the recession turned out to be pretty good for the candy industry and for Red Kite Candy. Like the liquor and beverage sectors, candy has done well during the slowed economy, perhaps because it’s considered by consumers as comfort food.

Nationwide, candy sales have been increasing steadily since 2007, topping $33 billion last year, with chocolate showing the largest growth at almost 6 percent in December over the same month in 2011, according to figures published by the National Confectioners Association.

Artisan candy, like Red Kite, has been expanding for a number of years, much like such other artisan products as breads and cheeses, said Kara Nielsen, a trend analysts with CCD Innovations, a San Francisco-based firm that tracks developments in the culinary arts.

“It’s part of the eating local movement ... artisan confectioners are making candy that is particularly attractive to younger, determined consumers who are willing to go out of their way to find a higher quality products,” Nielsen said.

“In recent years, we’ve been watching these cottage industries grow out of their kitchens into much bigger operations and finding much broader markets for their products.”

In the future, Nielsen says she expects to see artisan candy makers turn to more extreme flavors and types of candy. “Instead of salted caramels, you’ll see salted chili caramels. There will be more levels of flavors and more unique flavor combinations.”

McCabe started off slow with just a space to sell her Vermont-made candy at the Thetford Farmers Market, but eventually, she found retail outlets across the Upper Valley, including Dan and Whit’s in Norwich, the Co-op Food Stores, King Arthur Flour and F.H. Gillingham and Sons in Woodstock.

Now, Red Kite Candy is sold throughout Vermont and across the rest of New England by Whole Foods and other retailers.

And, thanks to a recommendation by The New York Times, the candy is getting recognized nationwide and online sales are increasing from about 5 percent of gross.

The key to Red Kite’s success has been the quality of the candy, which is maintained by using the best ingredients available, such as organic Vermont butter, milk, eggs and maple syrup, Elaine McCabe said.

Although McCabe hasn’t advertised Red Kite yet, relying only word-of-mouth, the business has grown rapidly, more than doubling every year, said her husband, Mike McCabe, who joined the company full time a little more than year ago after leaving an executive position at TomTom and spending a year as a consultant.

“Elaine was at a point that she was going to have to hire someone full time. She couldn’t keep doing the whole thing by herself, so we decided that I’d join the business,” Mike McCabe said.

The move for him has worked out well. He brings years of product management experience to the company as well as filling another production position.

“During November and December, I was working 12-hour days,” he said.

Although he recently joined the business, Red Kite has been a collaboration from the start for the couple, who first met in the 1970s during their college years at Ohio State University.

Although Elaine McCabe made the final decision on the name of the company, Mike McCabe had come up with a list of suggestions that included Red Kite.

“I liked it because it was a childhood memory for me,” Elaine McCabe said, noting that when she was growing up in Ohio that she and her brother would fly 29-cent paper kites in a neighboring field. “And red is my favorite color.”

In order to keep up with demand, the McCabes converted most of the basement in their Patsy Lane home into a state-inspected, specially equipped commercial kitchen with a candy cooker, cooling table, refrigeration, storage and a wrapping machine.

The business is cyclical, peaking in the fall and carrying through to Valentine’s Day and then dropping off during the spring and summer. In the fall, the McCabes bring in part-time help to fill the orders, but after the peak, they can keep up with the business.

“We did about two tons of candy during November and December. We’re maxed out at this facility during those months. We really can’t do any more with the room we have,” Mike McCabe said.

The cycles in the business suit the McCabes’ current balance with family, but if the business continues to grow, a larger facility and more employees will have to be considered, Mike McCabe said.

Sales are slow during the warmer, high humidity months when it’s hard to produce up-to-standard candy. Without a better temperature and humidity control system, “we can’t make quality candy in the summer. It just isn’t right,” Elaine McCabe said.

“Besides, who wants to make candy in the summertime? It’s too hot, and there are too many other things to do outside.”

To fill in the gaps in the season, the McCabes are looking at other products — sauces for ice cream or other desserts that could be produced and bottled during the slower months.

However, even with the slow months, Red Kite’s success has grown the business to a critical point: “Do we keep growing? We think there’s more we could do.

If so, we’ll have to find another place with more room, and that brings in other factors,” such as seeking financing, hiring more staff, etc., Mike McCabe said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to decide pretty soon.”

In the meantime, Red Kite is paying the employees.

“We set a goal of having the company replace my salary at TomTom by 2013, and we’re on track to do that,” Mike McCabe said.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.