Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Good Karmal: Not Your Grandma's Caramel

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

                                                      -- Eleanor Roosevelt
Patty Triplett West 

Think Montana and what comes to mind? Mountains, bears, camping and perhaps a sizzling beefsteak? But caramels? Not so much. Yet a thriving caramel business is what my husband and I discovered during a recent visit to the pretty south Montana town of Bozeman, about 90 miles from Yellowstone. At the family-owned and operated Good Karmal, those cute little confections that used to turn up in your grandma's candy dish or in your Halloween goody bag have had a 21st century makeover. Instead of Kraft cubes, they now come in little cellophane-wrapped logs in flavors ranging from sea salt to caramel apple to chipotle--all wrapped up in inspirational quotes.

We stopped in to meet founder and CEO Patty Triplett West, who gave up a high-profile Hollywood PR gig to create her candy business, which also employs husband Ryan, brother Steve, a few local college students and graduates, and sometimes, during holiday rushes, fellow moms and even her two daughters, Jane and Ruby, ages 5 and 8, in a quilting-bee-style wrapping fest.

At the local caramel factory that makes the kosher dairy, gluten-free treats to Patty's specifications--mixing brown and white sugars, cream, butter, tapioca starch, vanilla and salt, plus various natural flavorings--long sheets of caramel are sliced and diced, spun in metal cylinders, wrapped and boxed, awaiting the final human touch--quotes on small colored slips of paper that enclose the candy. That process takes place in the Good Karmal offices inside a building that backs onto rolling open fields and is adjacent to the sprawling Montana State University campus.

The view from Good Karmal

I sat down with Patty to talk about the high points of caramels vs. other treats and what it takes to create the highest-quality caramel--and how someone who made her name in Hollywood PR working for the likes of actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and film and TV producer J. J. Abrams became the CEO of a caramel company.

"I've always loved caramels," she said. "So when I found out you could make them on your stove top without any fancy equipment, I had to try it, even though I'm not a great baker or chef at all. They turned out great."

In 2002, while working at Warner Bros., Patty began giving out holiday gifts of the caramels wrapped in some of her favorite quotes. "Most of the people I gave these gifts to were sort of important people--celebrities, journalists, producers--and I got a really great response right away."

Shortly after it started, the company got a big boost after Oprah Winfrey picked the candy as one of her "favorite things" on her holiday show.

Caramels, hot off the presses

But success brought new challenges. Patty quit her job and moved with her husband to Santa Cruz to work on the business full time, but they were still making every piece of caramel by hand. When they discovered a local candy manufacturer in Bozeman willing to do it for them, they decided to move again.

Why caramels?

"It's a light treat. It doesn't sit in your stomach all day like a fudge would," she said. "I really see this as a spiritual gift, a quote wrapped around the caramel to make you think. And the sugar makes you more happy about it."

Good Karmal comes in six flavors--vanilla, sea salt, chocolate sea salt, cafe caramel, caramel apple and chipotle. Two caramels have 120 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 3 Weight Watchers Plus points.

"Our most popular flavor is definitely the sea salt," she said. "It's an old-fashioned vanilla flavor with the sprinkling of a nice crunchy sea salt on the outside--and it's delicious."

I'll vouch for that, although I'm rather partial to the chipotle, which has a hint of peppery spice, giving the candy a bit of an edge. The candies are much softer than the Kraft version, and the sea salt variety really do crunch slightly when you take a bite. Patty said the company is always considering new flavors. A caramel slab for those who would like to bake with Good Karmal is one possibility. Yes, please!

As for the quotes, they're really the piece that sets the candy apart. They're less like fortune cookie messages and more positive sayings you might paste on your computer or send to a friend--bits of good karma(l), so to speak.

"I've always been a passionate collector of quotes. I feel like the right quote always finds me at a certain point in my life as a message that makes me really shift my thinking," Patty said. Mixing the love of candy and the love of quotes "made perfect sense for who I am, because I loved candy, but I was always looking for more meaning in my life and thought that other people might be too."

One of her favorite quotes is from Gandhi:

"We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

Good Karmal basket

"I love that quote because even the littlest things--letting someone in in traffic, smiling at the checkout person who's having a bad day--I think that's who I want to be--and that's the change I want to see."

Her brother Steve says his favorite quote is from Jimi Hendrix:

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."

Patty avoids overtly religious sayings that might offend someone or be preachy.

"I consider myself a kindist. I think we should all be nice to each other and nice to the Earth." The quotes reflect this philosophy--with some of the profits benefiting environmental causes.

Baskets and favors tailored for weddings, baby showers, sports events, grand openings, hospitals, charities--all of these are keeping the factory humming, Patty said. Perhaps it would be nice to go beyond her web-based model and sell her caramels in a few upscale retail outlets in Los Angeles and New York, she muses. But she doesn't want to grow so big she won't have time to pick up her daughters from school and enjoy the great life she and her husband have found in Bozeman.

"I'm all for slow, smart growth."

Sounds like a quote worth wrapping round a caramel.

Here's a video of Patty Triplett West talking about Good Karmal. It was produced by my husband, Jefferson Graham.

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