Lincoln Square caramels with hazelnuts
Lincoln Square caramels with hazelnuts Credit: Eric Futran

Julie Brown is a candy freak—she eats some every day, graduating from childhood Gummi Bears to handmade marshmallow-stuffed caramels from Hammond’s Candies in Denver. Early this year she put that passion to work, combining her love of sweets with some marketing savvy to start up City Caramels, artisanal caramels in flavors she says are inspired by the city’s distinctive neighborhoods.

Her first was Lincoln Square, caramel sprinkled with hazelnut pieces. “The hood is on my regular walking route from my home in North Center and has a European vibe that I’ve associated with hazelnuts since I backpacked there in 2002, sampling hazelnut ice cream, Nutella, and other confections along the way,” Brown says. The descriptive label on the caramels goes even further, citing Lincoln Square’s German immigrants and the “castles and cobblestone paths” conjured by the rich taste of toasted hazelnuts.

The coffee shops of Bucktown sparked a coffee-flavored caramel studded with bits of chocolate-covered espresso beans (though the label refers to the long-gone goatherds that gave the neighborhood its name). Pilsen’s caramel celebrates the neighborhood’s Mexican population and Brown’s own heritage (she’s half Mexican): it’s flavored with Abuelita-brand chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, and ancho chiles and strewn with pepitas. Old Town, the most recent addition, is plain caramel with big chunks of pretzel embedded in it. “I wanted an old favorite, and pretzels have been around forever,” Brown, who’s 34, says. “They were created by Bavarian monks and that ties in with the Bavarian style of the landmark Saint Michael’s Church.” It’s turned out to be her most popular flavor so far.

After using friends and relatives as guinea pigs, Brown, who’s kept her day job in sales and marketing, began testing her caramels at coffee shops. Next she expanded to Drew’s Eatery, an upscale organic hot-dog spot on Montrose, and Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, where she has a display by the cash register. Now the caramels are also on offer at Southport Grocery & Cafe and both branches of Provenance Food and Wine, and Brown sells them through Etsy at Prices range from $1.50 for three caramels to $20 for a one-pound sampler. While production, at the shared Kitchen Chicago on the Near West Side, remains small, it’s increasing; she estimates that she made 20 pounds in July, 25 in August.

Before this venture, Brown’s experience in the food industry was limited to the first job she held after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1998. She was a sales rep for Hershey’s, which sent her to Iowa, where her main customer was the Hy-Vee supermarket chain. “It was a unique opportunity, because they placed huge orders directly with Hershey’s, and I got to do tons of displays, promotions, and even product launches, such as for Bites,” she says. “I was there for two and a half years and loved the job—but didn’t like living in Iowa.”

The idea for City Caramels came from another source, however. Brown used to subscribe to the shelter magazine Domino, and a couple of years ago she came across a back-page profile of a woman who’d written a candy book. “There was a recipe for chocolate caramels, one of her favorites, and I thought they sounded amazing,” she says. “So I looked up her blog and discovered she’d gotten a huge response from people ordering her caramels. Then I thought, I could do that.”

She took the first step last year, teaching herself how to make caramels. “It was more like a science experiment than cooking or baking,” Brown says. “I made batches upon batches at home, trying out various recipes, including the one from Domino, and eventually developed my own.” The basic ingredients are sugar, which is heated until it’s brown, bubbly, and at the hard-ball stage, and heavy cream and butter, which are heated together, then stirred slowly into the sugar. Any flavorings such as coffee or chocolate are added at this point. The mixture’s then brought back to hard-ball temperature (about 245 degrees, though it varies depending on the humidity) and poured out onto sheet pans lined with parchment paper. The hazelnuts, pepitas, pretzels, etc, are pressed in, and the caramels are allowed to set overnight unrefrigerated before being cut and individually wrapped by hand in cellophane. “The trick for me was figuring out when to take the mixture off the stove,” Brown says, “though now I can tell by the color and the smell, and that’s gratifying.”

Once Brown had the product she wanted—a little firm, chewy, not too buttery, and nothing like what you get in the grocery store—she tackled the logistics of starting a business: taking the food sanitation safety course, doing the paperwork required by the state, and getting an individual Chicago business license (currently required to use shared commercial kitchens). “I tried to be very frugal,” she says, “but it still cost me several thousand dollars.”

Next on Brown’s plate is a beer-infused Wrigleyville caramel with peanuts. Beverly’s also on her radar, but she hasn’t settled on the flavors yet. She’d like to source more ingredients locally, though for the moment she’s relying on Jetro Wholesale Grocer for basics, Trader Joe’s for the chocolate-covered espresso beans, and Zingerman’s for the coffee. And she’s always looking for more retail stores to carry City Caramels. “My goals are pretty modest, and the fun part is inventing new flavors for new neighborhoods,” she says, “but I confess I chose the name for the possibility of going beyond Chicago.”