New Additions to the Family
Jen and I took a trip up to the Bronx a couple of weeks ago to visit a couple very important new additions to the family: some cutting and packaging machinery.
I’d be lying if I told you that we haven’t mechanized anything up to this point solely because of our convictions. Certainly, making candy by hand is what we do; we started the company because we love doing it, and that’s not about to change. But there are a myriad of reasons we’ve had to hold off on stuff like this; and the fact is that, once we have them, some parts of the process are going to change in a very real and profound way. It’s exciting, and also scary. (See also: Everything Ever About Running A Business.)
This is a Model K Kiss machine, most likely from the 1920s. (“Kiss” is just an industry term for this particular shape of candy; no making out with the machine, plz.) It sizes, cuts, and wraps about 100 caramels per minute. Now — big reveal — we haven’t hand-cut and -wrapped the majority of our caramels for almost 3 years now.* We actually send batches of our caramel to another candy company to cut and wrap on their machine, and they send it back to us so we can package it. It’s worked out fine, for the most part; but obviously it’s a hassle, expensive, conducive to bottlenecks, and just feels a little silly to be sending blocks of caramel across state lines on a regular basis. It’s way past time we got our own machine; and seriously, look at this thing. It’s SO. COOL. Of course, we’ll have to be trained on it, and all learn how to use it, and talk nice to it when it gets finicky (it’s almost a century old, after all), and all that other good stuff. But the bottom line is that it will make our lives easier, and allow us to focus on the actual candymaking, which is what we do best.
There are a few other things we’re angling for that will help speed up our production process: an air-powered guillotine cutter so we don’t have to hand-cut the Beer & Pretzel caramels anymore; a dough sheeter so we don’t have to hand-roll all the cookie dough; a caramel corn mixer so someone doesn’t have to stand there and toss it with two spatulas for 10 minutes…things like that. Machines that help speed along the finishing process, and take the gruntwork off the shoulders of our talented staff so they can focus on the other, more skilled tasks they should be performing. But there’s one that we’re particularly excited about, and it even has a super-cool name: a Fire Mixer.
Right now we’re in a temporary kitchen space, and are actually making caramel in big pots on a gas range. That’s it: big pot, spatula, patience. It’s a fine way to make caramels in a home setting; but as a business, it’s kind of terrible. It takes way longer than is should, and the final product is less caramelly and delicious; there are hot spots on the range; sometimes the caramels burns or bubbles over, or it speeds up cooking too much at the very end and gets overcooked, or…well you get the idea.
The Fire Mixer looks like a big stand mixer; but underneath the bowl is a powerful gas jet. Oh, and also? That bowl is made of copper, which does a bunch of really neat stuff when it comes into contact with sugar that I’ll get into some other time. There’s also a big stirrer that agitates the caramel as it cooks; and a thermometer that keeps track of what temperature the caramel ends up at. It’s basically the best thing ever and we’re all desperately in love with it.
When we first found out about this machine, I felt a little conflicted. Wouldn’t this mean the caramel was machine-made, not handmade? If no one needs to stand there and stir it, does it take too much of the human touch out? In a strict sense, I don’t know the hard answers to these questions. Certainly there are a bunch of large companies touting their “handmade” or “artisanal” bagels, pickles, tortilla chips, bread…you name it, some corporation has slapped a twee-sounding descriptor on it. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the percentage of person-labor vs. the percentage of machine-labor doesn’t matter as much in this case. The caramel that comes out of that Fire Mixer** will have exactly the same amount of top-notch ingredients, care, and love put into it as any batch we ever cooked on a stovetop. And, from what I can tell, the end result will actually be significantly better. We’ll certainly have to let you know when we first fire it up — looks like some point in May*** — how it turns out. I’m sure there will be a bit of a learning curve on that machine as well, but we’re cautiously optimistic.
We strive every single day to make our company better. A better place to work, that puts out better product, and can serve our customers better than the day before. Sometimes we’ll have to compromise in order to move forward; but today, I feel pretty damn unconflicted about these next steps.
How about you, cherished reader? What are your thoughts on the meaning of “handmade”?
*The Beer & Pretzel is still hand-cut and -wrapped, as are some of our special flavors, like the Banana Bread. Don’t worry, we still keep our wrist braces on deck.
**Gawd, I love saying Fire Mixer. Fire Mixer Fire Mixer Fire Mixer.
***For the love of Flying Spaghetti Monster, don’t quote me on that.