The Sweet Life

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I first “bumped” into Ali Clark on Instagram at the end of 2014 when my blog was first starting. I followed her photos as she shared moments of harvesting vegetables, and then transitioned to her role of candy maker when winter came. She started Snowshoe Candy Co. in 2013 with her family’s caramel recipe. This venture has truly been a labor of love. Along the way, she has added other sweet treats including sugar cubes, cherry cordials, and tea cookies. Ali utilizes as many local ingredients in her creations as possible, and has a map on her website showing where many of her items are sourced. Running a business on a smaller scale has given her room to explore different flavors and creations, and she stated that she always looks forward to the transition from vegetables to sweets when the weather changes.

Ali was born in Wisconsin. While growing up, her family was always canning, candy making, knitting and baking. After studying economics at Marquette University, she moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and almost immediately founded Big Muddy Urban Farm with a small group of friends. Five years later, she is about to start a new endeavor with her partner Scott, as they have moved to an 11 acre certified organic farm in Honey Creek, Iowa. This farm is located near Honey Creek Creamery, the same creamery that I visited in the spring. Ali and Honey Creek Creamery’s owner, Sharon Oamek, are currently sharing certified kitchen space. Since Ali only utilizes the kitchen during the winter months, she is able to have full access to the space while goat cheese production takes a break during the cold.

I visited Ali at the creamery on a frigid January morning. We chatted while she made cherry cordials, sugar cubes, and checked on some experimental caramel in the fridge. At one point, we looked out the window and saw a fox running through the field on a hill. I can’t imagine a more perfect setting for her to be creating confections. At end of my day there, I posted a photo to Instagram with a caption about her putting lots of love into the cherry cordials she was making. Love, tradition, community, thoughtfulness-- I have no doubt that all of these things are going into every single piece Ali makes.






























I read that while growing up you had lots of creative outlets. I know I’ve referred to you as “a woman of many talents” due to your farming, knitting, painting, and candy making skills. What else can you do that I don't know about? Hmm. It's so funny, because I hardly think of myself in terms of my "talents" -- I choose to do things because they make me happy and I like to work on them until they become second nature. The process of learning a new skill is so exciting! I particularly like to learn skills that are not new, but rather have ties to traditional homesteading cultures. I see myself as a fairly independent person, and like to be able to provide for myself. Crafts and skills that create a functional yet beautiful end product (be it edible or not) intrigue me! To be independent from a consumer culture and be able to provide for myself in a way that doesn't rely completely on money (funny, since I studied economics in college) allows me to live a fuller life. I have friends and acquaintances who feel so bound to their jobs, when their jobs don't give them any happiness, only an income. I acknowledge that I have been privileged to have had a college education and have no debt. But it has been an important for me to make life decisions for me and not strictly for money. In the process, I have learned many skills and grown many relationships, which has been very rewarding. What is this skill? I don't know the name for it, but perhaps it is thriftiness!

One of my favorite things we talked about was that you feel so compelled to make your candies and that it brings you so much joy. Tell me about the moment that you realized you were going to create a candy business. It is so funny, because I never really thought it would be a business! I learned how to make caramels from my grandpa Clark in 2008, and did so every year after. I would share them with friends and experiment with new flavor combos. When I moved to Omaha in 2011 and shared them with my new friends, they would say "you should sell these!" But I had just started another business (Big Muddy Urban Farm) and couldn't possibly think about adding another business to my life at that time. After a few seasons of Big Muddy, and as we transitioned into fall, I decided to make a batch of caramels and bring them to the farmers market at our farm booth. Much to my surprise, they sold out! After the market season, a friend of mine, who makes stationary and was also a vendor at the market, and I were talking about how much we enjoyed the market environment and that it might be fun to do a few holiday markets; she with her stationary and I with my candies. We picked a few and I set to work. The week after the market ended, I went on a trip to visit my best friend in Idaho (where she was doing a clinical rotation). Both of us being from the Midwest, we had an affinity for snow and went on several mountain adventures. On the last day of our visit, we went on a snowshoe hike -- it was gorgeous! And it reminded me of my Wisconsin childhood and the magic of winter. There is something so special about the seasons to me, and incorporating that into my business was so important. If they can walk, anyone can snowshoe. And snowshoeing evokes adventure to me -- you are limitless in your explorations of winter! Which is what I wanted my candies to be -- a tool for people to see a joy in winter, and something to look forward to each year. On my drive home from Idaho, my mind was rolling with ideas. That winter, Snowshoe Candy Co. was born.

You’ve worked in kitchens with Clayton Chapman from The Grey Plume and Chad Lebo from Cure Cooking. How did these individuals further influence your candy experimentation and flavor profiles? What a lucky duck, that I could work in these kitchens! Both Clayton and Chad are such innovators when it comes to flavor and food. They each have such a different approach, but with both, they are dedicated to incorporating traditional methods. With Clayton, just being in the Provisions space pushed me to think about my branding. Every little detail of both the Grey Plume and the Provisions stores are executed with intention. And his contemporary spin on traditional practices like canning and preserves, reminded me to think outside the box. While I was there, I began exploring the use of dehydrated fruits and herbs, to add flavor, color and dimension to some of my confections. Then, with Chad, he is a bacon guy! Who would have ever thought to incorporate bacon into your confections? Last year, one of the most exciting collaborations we had was the "I love you more than bacon" box -- which had smoked peanut bacon brittle, bacon pretzel caramels and chocolate covered bacon -- something I could never have thought of myself.

You’re pretty much a one-woman show with Snowshoe Candy Co. What have you enjoyed about running the business on your own? What’s one of the biggest challenges of running it by yourself? I love being able to think of something new and just do it. There is no one there to say no! Which is also one of the biggest struggles -- sometimes I have about 50 things I want to make and I just keep dreaming of new things, instead of buckling down and just making one, and making it really well.

We talked about your intention to keep your business small and some of your internal struggles concerning things like adding small equipment to streamline part of the process. Can you share some thoughts about why this is important to you? Mechanizing any part of the process has been such a struggle! When I first started making caramels, I would make about 5 batches a winter: mix ingredients, stir for an hour and a half, watch a movie in the process, pour the caramels into a greased pan, wait 24 hours, make wrappers out of a roll of wax paper, use a spatula to get the caramel out of the pan (ten minutes!), cut the caramels, wrap the caramels. The whole process took such a long time, but it didn't matter, because I was only making 4 more batches and working elsewhere for my income. Once I became a business, I had to think of how to value my time so that I could justify the price of my caramels. In my price equation, I figure $10/hour for my labor, which is low for a person of my age and experience in this process... In order to keep each caramel from costing $10 a piece, I have had to become more efficient -- I no longer cut my own wrappers but rather order a more reliable pre-cut wrapper. I always make double batches and I pour them into a parchment-lined pan, saving time on removing the caramel. This year, I added a "stirrer" -- which is a battery operated tool that attaches to my caramel pot and stirs for me. I had qualms about this to begin with, but as I thought through it, it was a necessary part of streamlining my caramel production. I now have an hour and a half that I can use to make other candies. My price of caramels can stabilize and I can be more creative with my time, then spending the time stirring. I still cut and wrap all the caramels by hand. This year, I made 14 batches from October to December! As I continue to grow my business, and streamline parts of the process, I always ask myself -- does this change the quality of my product? Or does it simply allow me to do more? When I thought through adding the automatic stirrer to my process, I thought through other processes that we use tools to streamline in our own lives -- the oven, the stove, the electric mixer -- we do it all the time.

What new things are you looking forward to testing and trying? And please give me an update on those mint patties we talked about! The mint patties are on hold, but I am super excited about experimenting with wine in some hard candies! And I love working with other makers, so it is always fun to think of ways to incorporate other local products into my candies -- right now, I am experimenting with some maple syrup from an Iowa farm!

Snowshoe Candy Co. treats are available at www.snowshoecandyco.com and will be sold locally at The Love Bazaar February 6th & 7th. 

Follow along:
Instagram: @snowshoecandyco 


2 comments

  1. What a fun day you must have had! I love the creamery connection.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Jamie. Most definitely! Honey Creek Creamery is one of my favorite places. They have open tours during the warmer months as part of the Living Loess group--I'd highly recommend it!

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