Lisa Schalk is bracing herself for “The Oprah Effect.”
The one-time stay-at-home mom and current owner of Tampa’s-own Toffee to Go business has been accepted into one of the most powerful business-boosting venues in modern consumer culture: Inclusion in “O,” The Oprah Magazine as one of Oprah’s “Favorite Things.”
Lest the doubters scoff, “The Oprah” has given immense boosts to start-up companies from her list of things that she (and the staff of her magazine) covet at the moment. Inc. magazine has published studies that list scores of start-ups that rocketed into a growth phase after appearing in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine or on the TV show. Reading lights, eco-friendly shopping bags, cosmetics and nearly every other kind of consumable good. Another Tampa company, College Hunks Hauling Junk, also felt the Oprah Effect several years ago and has been growing ever since.
Even before this, Toffee to Go was on an expansion tear.
The business started in earnest in 2002 when Schalk found her neighbors so loved her homemade toffees that they offered to buy them for friends. Informal orders kept pouring in, and soon she and her husband, Jim, were cooking toffee almost full time. The first year, she sold 125 pounds. But orders kept coming in, and she persuaded her husband Jim to quit his job as a hotel general manager and start a new company, run out of a small shop at El Prado Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue.
“I knew it was going to be a real thing,” she said. “I always had that vision, even though my husband could not sleep at night.”
While Lisa handled sales and operations, Jim found himself rising early Thursday mornings, driving all over the country to gift and food trade shows, then returning in the wee hours Sundays, only to jump back into the kitchen to cook more batches.
Theirs is a far different kind of toffee than the often teeth-shattering and dental adhesive toffee sold in grocery stores. It crumbles easily when bit, and is much more buttery than versions produced in industrial kitchens. Now, it commands a premium price.
A small “tower” with just under two pounds of toffee bites costs $54. A large tower with just under four pounds costs $99. Demand was high enough two years ago that the company relocated to a spot on Bay to Bay Boulevard, and that’s not even big enough.
The Schalks are cooking nearly a thousand pounds of toffee a day. Yesterday, they shipped out 8,000 boxes for gift shops around the country, and the volume keeps going up.
FedEx now parks a trailer at their site every night for the cooks to load up. Yesterday, they wrapped up 400 cases with between 16 and 24 boxes inside each, and the volume keeps going up. The site on Bay to Bay is so crowded that every hallway is stacked with packaging, ingredients, labels, ribbons and equipment.
The Oprah appearance was hardly an accident. The Schalk’s had sent a toffee tower to Oprah’s best friend and business partner, Gayle King, last year.
Then in July, they were at a large gift trade show in Atlanta and “O” magazine Creative Director Adam Glassman came by the booth and said he’d tried the toffee before from King. Lisa Schalk followed up by sending a tower of toffee as a thank you, and soon she started receiving cryptic phone calls from the magazine staff: Could they send more for photographs, but no promises. Then in October, magazine editors said the toffee made the “Favorite” list for the December magazine, but not to tell anyone else until this week.
To prepare for the rush, Schalk installed four new phone lines, and their seasonal staff has grown to 30 people. The holiday season will be far too busy to scout for more space, but they’ve already hired a real estate broker to find a new location, because they’ll need at least 15,000 square feet of kitchen space to keep up with demand.