An old family recipe and an engineer’s know-how have resulted in Belle’s Fine Toffee, a business on pace to outgrow the Lee’s Summit residence where it was launched two years ago.
“If God is willing, we are going to get it out of our basement yet,” said Larry Marak, founder of the family business.
Since the 1950s, Marak said, generations of his family have been enjoying the homemade toffee recipe developed by his late aunt, Ida Belle Banta, the German-English wife of a junior college dean in Trinidad, Colo.
“She was like a Martha Stewart,” Marak said of Ida Belle, who taught candy making and cake decorating classes at the college and, somewhere along the way, developed her famous toffee recipe.
“As a child, I remember our family receiving a box of her toffee every year,” said Marak. “It was the ultimate Christmas treat and was given out sparingly.”
According to Marak, his aunt’s toffee recipe was handed down to him and his wife, Joyce, a couple of years after their marriage in 1963. And they carried on the toffee-making tradition after Ida Belle’s death in 1969. But the couple didn’t start thinking about making it commercially until seven years ago, when their older of two sons, John, suggested it.
“John and his wife, Tracy, came to us and said, ‘Mom and Dad, you have something unique. We think it’s marketable and would like to test market it,’” Marak recalled.
The son and daughter-in-law subsequently sold 40 tins of the toffee during a two-week span at a Christmas tree stand in the St. Louis area, where they live. And the orders that poured in for the following year’s holiday season were too numerous to fill in the Maraks’ kitchen.
The test marketing had substantiated the fact that lots of people would buy the toffee, Marak said. The problem was that the family had no licensed, adequately sized place to manufacture large quantities.
That changed two and a half years ago, when Marak was laid off from his job as a hardware engineer for a company in Olathe, Kan.
“I’d been talking about doing this as a retirement project for years,” Marak explained. “So I decided this was the time, and we spent a lot of our life savings converting my basement electronics lab into a toffee factory.”
There, several family members – including the Maraks’ younger son, Kevin; their daughter, Liana Kilgore; and Liana’s two daughters – start making toffee around the time school starts every year.
It’s too hot to make toffee before then, said Marak, who explained that the temperature in the toffee factory must be maintained at 68 degrees or lower. And there’s not much point in gearing up before then anyway, he added, because 90 percent of the company’s sales are made in November and December.
The production starts by pouring slabs of toffee made using Ida Belle’s recipe, which contains water, cane sugar, creamery butter, a little corn syrup and almonds.
But after the toffee is poured into slabs, the recipe follows a series of steps developed by Marak.
Unlike his aunt, who broke the toffee into irregular pieces, the Marak family scores it and breaks it into neat, bite-size squares. The squares are then dipped in chocolate – milk or dark, depending on the batch being made.
According to Marak, the coating begins from slabs of imported Belgian chocolate, which is hand-shaved into small pieces by family members, then put into a warmer that brings it up to the melting point, a process that takes about 12 hours.
It is then poured into a tempering machine, which Marak designed to bring the chocolate up to the right temperature for dipping.
According to Kevin Marak, the dipping process makes the toffee different – in a good way – from any other on the market.
Most English toffee is made by merely coating slabs of toffee with chocolate and nuts, which results in a tacky consistency that sticks to teeth, he said.
“We found that if we dip it in chocolate, it seals the toffee,” Kevin said.
Joyce Marak, who gives every batch the bite test, said the finished product “should be crunchy but not so hard you can’t bite into it.
Getting people who think all toffee is hard and sticky to try Belle’s Fine Toffee is one of the challenges the Maraks have had to overcome in building their business.
But enough people have tried and loved the candy to keep the basement toffee factory churning at maximum production, currently 30 pounds of day.
The candy is available, foil-wrapped or not, in 2- and 5.5-ounces bags in several retail locations, including A Thyme for Everything in downtown Lee’s Summit and several St. Louis locations that Tracy Marak helped secure.
It is also available in 8 ounce bags and 16-, 28- and 42-ounce tins via the company’s website, www.belletoffee.com.
And orders placed by Dec. 15 will be delivered in time for Christmas.
“My dream,” Larry Marak said, “is to grow the business to where the younger people could do all the back-breaking work, and I could sit back and manage it.”
Given current production limitations it might be a while before he can sit back and count his millions, Marak acknowledged. But that’s OK, he added.
Sharing the sweet family tradition is just as rewarding as any monetary benefits Belle’s Fine Toffee might bring, he said.