Most people don’t really think all that much about where their food comes from, or so it seems to Hannah Gray.
There are some exceptions to that rule, of course. You might know the local farm where your butcher shop gets its meat, for instance, or the garden where a restaurant sources its fresh produce.
But when it comes to the vast majority of food items that line the grocery store shelves — the boxes of crackers, bags of chips, canned beverages, jars of condiments and countless other packaged items — average consumers usually have no idea how any particular products came to land in their shopping carts.
“I think for most people, it just magically seems to appear at their grocery store,” Gray said. “There’s so much behind it that you just don’t get to see.”
Gray, however, did get to see what is behind those products. In fact, she created many of those products herself.
As a former product developer in the product development lab at the Warrell Corporation, a confectionary and snack food manufacturing company based in Pennsylvania that has supplied to all the big-name retailers, Gray spent more than five years immersed in the world of food science.
While visual artists had the chance to display their work in art galleries, Gray had something even better: the grocery store.
“With product development, you get to create products that go out into the world, which I think is just the coolest thing ever,” she said. Walking down the aisles at Target, Walmart, Costco and other major retail outlets, Gray would see products she herself had made sitting on the store shelves. “I would always fangirl over it, like taking pictures or making sure it was arranged just so,” she said.
Now a professional confectionary consultant at the food development lab Victus Ars, Gray has launched her own Greenville-based confectionary company, One Sweet Mama, from which she supplies a changing menu of specialty ordered sweet treats.
To this day, no matter what she’s creating — from Girl Scout Cookie chocolate bars, to hot cocoa bombs, to raspberry truffles (to name some recent creations) — Gray still adheres to the same scientific and creative process she utilized in the professional product development area.
Creating candy is not how it appears in the commercials. For starters, Gray has never once seen a stern-faced man wearing an all-white outfit and a puffy pastry hat sensuously whisk a basin of melted chocolate (“Those commercials make no sense,” she said. “You don’t even whisk chocolate!”). That’s not to say she didn’t get to spend her days playing around with her fair share of chocolate, but there was a far more technical aspect than the average candy consumer might realize.
Globally, the confectionary industry is a $210 billion industry as of 2019 and is expected to hit $270 billion by 2027, according to Allied Market Research. Understandably, given its scope, the products that make up that industry are created not by whimsy and happenstance; instead, they are developed precisely by food scientists like Gray, who resemble chemists in a lab far more than imaginary chocolatiers from Lindor commercials.
Product developers must take into account the principles of chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and even physics in order to understand how different ingredients, temperatures, textures and flavors interact. Through rigorous trial and error, they must experiment to understand what type of experience they want the consumer to have.
Among countless other questions, product developers must ask themselves: How does the size of one piece of candy change the consumer’s experience? How does the mouthfeel play off the flavor profile of the confection? How does the color of a candy prime a consumer’s expectations? How do different texture combinations affect the overall experience?
Combining the technical with the creative is not the only aspect of the job. Product developers must also take into account the wishes of the buyers (the brand or retailer that is contracting them to create the product), scalability of the product through large-scale manufacturing, marketing and sales.
“We always had to take into account large-scale manufacturing and marketability in our process,” Gray said. “If you can’t expand it, you can’t make it.”
That fact alone led to numerous small heartbreaks over the years, as some of Gray’s favorite confectionary formulas had to be scrapped because of one factor or another. Perhaps a certain nut had gone up in price, or there were purchasing issues with one particular ingredient, or the sales team just had a difficult time pitching the product.
Then there were client concerns. Companies would come to the product development lab at the Warrell Corporation with specific ideas, some of which seemed outlandish from the start.
“One time Chobani” — the Greek yogurt company — “came to us and said that they really thought America was ready for savory yogurt,” Gray recalled. “When people look at yogurt, they think sweet, fruity flavors, you know — but here we were trying to come up with, say, garlic pepper yogurt.”
“Yeah, that one didn’t quite pan out,” she added.
The candy man
Few know these inner workings of the product development process better than Patrick Huffman, a 50-year veteran of the confectionary industry who has worked for numerous candy companies in his career. Huffman served as president and chief operating officer of The Jelly Belly Candy Co., was inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame, and received the Hans Dresel Memorial Award, the confectionary industry’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
But those accolades were never what motivated Huffman.
“Let me put it to you this way: I have never met a person who, when I say I’m in the candy industry, doesn’t smile,” Huffman said.
Huffman began his career with a chemistry degree and an expectation that he would spend his days working in a lab somewhere. When he walked into a local candy manufacturing plant in his college town as a fresh graduate, looking for a quick job, he didn’t anticipate he would be embarking on a lifelong journey in the world of candy.
In case you’re wondering, no, Huffman is not sick of eating candy. All these years later, he still eats candy every day, and he still loves talking about candy, too. Huffman is the kind of person who can wax poetic for minutes at a time about the divisive response to popcorn-flavored jelly beans (it’s the mouthfeel that confuses people, he’ll explain, as some people find it jarring when familiar flavors don’t match the feel of their original form).
He can just as easily give an impromptu history lesson about the “candy desk” inside the United States Senate, which is exactly what it sounds like: a desk near the entrance of the Senate chambers that is stocked full of candy, occupied by a senator responsible for passing out the candy, a role that has been held over the years by John McCain, George Voinovich, Rick Santorum and currently Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Speaking of politicians, President Reagan’s favorite jelly bean flavor? Licorice.
It’s hardly a surprise to Huffman that those in the confectionary industry have, as he puts it, a more “unique reputation” than those across the food production industry as a whole.
“We tend to be a little odd, a little bit caught up in our own industry,” Huffman said. “Someone who comes to us at, say, age 35 from a different industry can think we’re pretty strange. They view it as just a business, but you have to get truly invested in the industry if you’re going to stick around.”
Business is still business, after all, and even the most faithful confectionaries must be adept in the manufacturing, sales and finance pieces of the puzzle, but Huffman sees his role more as one in a long candy-making tradition, passing knowledge from generation to generation.
Most candy companies began as family businesses, he explains. What started with a grandmother’s formula for chocolate cookies, or an old family tradition of making sweets, then grew into a brand. When tasked with stewarding that brand — that legacy, that history — Huffman never forgot the importance of honoring those origins.
“There are some people in the candy business that’ll buy a few companies, cut out some people, and try to have one thing left, but ultimately they’ve taken the soul of it away,” he said.
Candy is different from most other products, he is quick to point out. How many people hold wonderful memories of purchasing their first jar of mayonnaise as a child or harbor nostalgia about using their first bar of soap? Candy, however, is wrapped not only in plastic but in memories. There’s a reason YouTube is full of millions of videos of children trying candy for the first time. It’s the spark in their eyes, the glee in their expressions.
“Like I said, I’ve spent more than 50 years in the candy business, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend life, frankly,” Huffman said. “Passing that knowledge on to people like Hannah, who come in and their eyes light up at the thought of making something others will love — that’s what gives me the most joy.”
A sweet tradition
After leaving the Warrell Corporation and moving to Greenville with her husband and kids in 2017, Gray took on her current role as a confectionary consultant while raising her two children. She never intended to start her own company. Her schedule was already busy enough, juggling work in between nap times, bedtimes, errands and the countless other tasks involved in keeping a family in order.
Oddly enough, it was frustration — and a little bit of anger — that led her to start One Sweet Mama.
“I would see on Instagram all these people who had become ‘food bloggers,’ and I would get so irrationally angry because they were all making things and just doing it so wrong,” Gray said.
They were the kinds of things only a food scientist would get angry about: people boiling caramel without a proper candy thermometer, for example, or a supposedly delicious recipe for microwave peanut brittle that Gray knew would come out soggy every time due to certain chemical reactions.
She wanted to create a resource that would teach people how to make their own professional-quality candy and confections right at home, without needing any expensive equipment.
“So I started out on Instagram with little how-to videos, essentially,” Gray said. “But every time I would post something, instead of people making it themselves, they would just ask to buy it from me. So that’s how this all got started.”
That was how One Sweet Mama as a business got started, but Gray said her career truly began far earlier, all the way back to her elementary school years, when she plucked a worn copy of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” off her school’s library shelves.
To this day, Gray can still remember the bent green cover, the old-book smell of the pages. The imagery in the book was so compelling that she began attempting her own candy creations in her kitchen, earning the nickname “Hurricane Hannah” from her mother for how much of a mess she created.
Roald Dahl’s descriptions of chocolate rivers and candy forests in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory led Gray all the way to the product development lab at Warrell and later to her own lab at home.
Now that she runs One Sweet Mama out of her home kitchen, however, she is no longer catering to the needs of big-brand retailers, which has freed her from the creative limitations inherent in mass-produced production.
Maybe one day she’ll expand herself — get a little shop somewhere, grow her brand. And who knows? Maybe she herself is the first in what could grow to be its own tradition, its own legacy. Years from now, she could be that grandmother with the original recipe who started it all.
Or maybe she’ll be like Huffman, one who passes on knowledge to others as she continues creating and growing on her own terms.
Huffman said despite his decades in the business, he still points to small-scale candy makers like Gray as the true carriers of the tradition. In his mind, it is through the problem-solving process, the daily ritual, the monkish attention to details far beyond what a normal person would even consider, that makes for the greatest practitioners of the nation’s confectionary tradition.
“That transfer of knowledge keeps them very strong,” he said. “They are the true candy-makers in our industry. You know, Hannah still sends me some of her candy from time to time, but if I can be remembered as someone who helped her harness her ability and improve upon it, that’s really sweeter than any candy she could ever make for me.”