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VOL. 37 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 8, 2013

From sweet to intoxicating, great treats made in Middle Tennessee spread holiday cheer

By Hollie Deese

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George and Christina McCoy Cohn first started making toffee with an old family recipe 11 years ago as a treat for friends and family.

The couple didn’t plan for the toffee to make its way to grocery store shelves across the country, but that’s exactly what happened to what would become Nashville Toffee Company.

“It really started out as a little hobby,” says Cohn, great-great-grandson of the 19th century Nashville businessman Meier Werthan. “There was no plan when we started this that it would turn into a big business. And, for year or two, it wasn’t really.”

Just as Nashville has grabbed headlines as a hot spot for foodies, treats with a Tennessee flavor are booming online, pushing many of the small businesses to expand operations, add employees – for the season or fulltime – and to try out new products.

Giving the gift of something good to eat, made from fresh, local Middle Tennessee ingredients, is on its way to becoming a new tradition.

Nashville Toffee Company’s shipping started out as a small and, at times, tedious project. Labels were painstakingly printed one at a time on a laser-jet printer in their home.

“Each one literally took a minute to print,” Cohn remembers.

After the labels were printed, Cohn would load the boxes in his truck and drive them to the post office himself. And so it went until he realized it was time to leave his banking job behind and focus solely on the sweet stuff.

Now, not only is Nashville Toffee sold in area Kroger and Whole Foods stores, but as of Nov. 1, Fresh Markets is adding the product to stores nationwide.

It’s the company’s first national deal, and the big boost has prompted an expansion of its Air Line Drive facility, which will be about 6,000-square-feet when complete.

Online sales account for about 10-15 percent of their overall business, and the company is taking on help for the holiday rush of orders.

It doesn’t do special holiday tins, but corporate clients can have a customized sticker or ribbon attached.

“The only way they know it is from us is when they open the tin, and there will be that little story about us,” Cohn says.

Holidays and online sales

For Sarah Souther of Bang Candy Company, almost all of her online sales come during the holiday season, mainly because she can’t ship her delicate marshmallows, flavored simple syrups and gooey candies during the hot summer months.

Originally from Ireland, she launched her Nashville business in December 2010.

The online store has been running just as long.

“It is a pretty large part of our business now,” she says. “And during the holidays it’s absolutely nuts.”

She normally operates with five employees, but is looking to double that for the holidays.

“I have more people working here than ever before, but I have quite a few friends who like to earn a few quid for Christmas,” she says. “So it’s good.”

She’s adding some seasonal flavored syrups to her line, as well as peppermint bark and honeycomb toffee, and fans will soon be able to find gift baskets on her site featuring these products.

Locals can also find her products at Fido, Whole Foods, West Elm Markets, Table 3 in Green Hills, The Willow Tree in Sylvan Park and, over the holidays, The Turnip Truck.

Her treats also are available at Anderson Design Group, which has launched a small gift shop in which customers can create custom gift-baskets featuring Nashville artisans and products. So, you could have Bang Candy Company marshmallows mixed with a Madeleine Royner print and a Kelli Morris purse.

From online to bricks and mortar

Olive & Sinclair chocolate is crafted by local chef Scott Witherow, a Le Grande diplome [graduate] from Le Cordon Bleu in London.

Witherow began O&S in 2009 and has never had a storefront, but that will change soon when his retail and factory opens at 628 Fatherland Street in the old HG Hill building – just in time to showcase seasonal items.

“We have a couple of new gift boxes that will be out this holiday season, and one-pound candy bars in vintage Christmas and holiday packaging,” Witherow says.

“And we are launching a few new items. One is duck fat caramels as well as a salt and vinegar caramels, and they are stinking awesome.”

O&S’s online sales only account for about 5 percent of the business’ total annual sales – he just launched his online store in mid-2010.

But even though online sales are not a big part of the business yet, Witherow’s confections can be found all over the world – thanks to distribution from heavy-hitting retailers Dean & DeLuca and Selfridges.

A first for Goo Goo

Nashville’s Goo Goo Clusters have been around for more than 100 years, but the company is rolling out holiday gift packaging for the first time this year.

When the brand relaunched a few years ago, it pulled out of the marketplace before coming back with new packaging.

“When we did that it was like we started over,” says Beth Sachan, director of marketing for Goo Goo. “At that time we rebuilt the website and created an online store, which we had never had before, either.”

That relaunch was in spring 2011. Sachan came on board in September 2011 to experience the site’s first Christmas season.

“Just having an online store alone was such a change that we were not doing any Christmas packaging,” she says. “We had just launched new packaging overall and it didn’t really make sense.”

Last year was the company’s 100th anniversary, and online sales grew overall. But last holiday season, it really saw a boost compared with the average sales from January to September.

“For October, the online sales doubled over what the normal monthly sales would be,” Sachan explains. “In November, it was eight times as much as the average. And for December, 10 times as much.”

A new director of retail was brought in a few months ago to initiate the holiday packaging, as well as boost corporate gift sales.

“Goo Goo is something special and a lot of people in other areas of the country grew up on Goo Goo, or have family and friends who grew up in the South with Goo Goos. We get orders from all over the country.”

Christie Cookie leads the way

One local company that has corporate holiday gifting down to a science is The Christie Cookie Company.

The first retail store was opened 30 years ago on Church Street by former Vanderbilt footballer Christie Hauck. He never really considered corporate gifting until he got a rather large order from a group of doctors at St. Thomas Hospital who wanted to send them out as referral gifts.

“He had never done mail order before so he called in some people and worked many days around the clock and he fulfilled that order for them,” says Sue O’Donnell, president of the mail order division at Christie. “It was quite an undertaking, but they did it successfully.”

Thinking the gifting could go beyond the medical community, Hauck hired a marketing person to talk up corporate clients. That person is now the national sales account manager.

O’Donnell came on board 20 years ago and decided to take the corporate gifting national.

“I went about building a sales team. And now we have nine sales reps that work in other cities. They call on clients and take the product with them and encourage them to use it for corporate gifting. It’s a much more personal approach.”

It helps to impress clients that the cookies are baked fresh daily, so they are fresh no matter where you order.

They hire a few hundred temporary workers to their Germantown commissary each holiday season to help with data entry and take calls at the center.

Hauck now runs The Christie Retail Group separate from the mail order business, a move he made about 10 years ago.

But his foresight in getting Christie Cookie kiosks on the Vanderbilt campus years ago is still paying off with grads all over the country craving those campus treats – for themselves and their employees.

The kiosks are no longer available on campus.

“People say it is a taste of Nashville, a taste of home,” says O’Donnell.

Loveless adds kitchen line

The Loveless Café, another iconic homegrown company, has launched a new line of items this year to supplement their already robust online store selection.

Janet Kane, formerly of the Smithsonian retail line, was brought on in January as the general manager for retail and merchandising, and this is her first year handling the company’s holiday sales.

This season Loveless is launching a line of kitchen and home products to sell alongside the food line.

“We wanted to have a complementary line to the food gifts,” Kane explains. “Serving pieces and kitchen linens are long-lasting reminders of the Loveless.”

This year the company will be looking at more ways to reach fans, but the café itself will remain unchanged.

“There is a lot of positive momentum in Nashville, and for the Loveless as a brand, and we are looking at any and all opportunities to be where the guests want to experience them,” Kane says.

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