By Kerry Drager
Connie and John Hammje struggled to keep their bakeshop and grill of 20 years open after new owners took over the Viking Plaza Mall in Alexandria. Increased lease payments and the cost of running a restaurant led the couple to find an alternative. It came to them with the requests of their customers and one chewy candy they sold in their bakeshop.
“In 1997 we started making caramels out of the restaurant,” said Connie. “It started out as a special order for a customer. There was a lot of positive feedback about the candies.”
After closing the restaurant, Hammje searched for a market to sell her caramels. She began going to wholesaler shows and in 1998, she applied for a booth in Minneapolis.
The Dutch House Confections became a thriving business that was conducted from their newly built home in Osakis. A special kitchen was constructed within their new home so that they could continue to manufacture their caramels.
While running the business from her home, Hammje kept expanding her market. Eventually she traveled out of Minnesota to attend demos in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles.
“The biggest increase in customers happened when I started doing more shows. Those I picked up from those out-of-state shows tend to reorder more frequently than my Minneapolis-based customers. L.A. is my best show.”
With the growth of the company, the need for more space became a priority. A closed restaurant and bar outside of Osakis was a perfect solution to their storage issues. The large walk-in freezer, a kitchen that was already equipped with the facilities needed and plenty of additional space for expansion was perfect for the company’s new home.
“At our house we had storage in our garage, in the living room, in the basement. It was difficult working in that environment. We had looked at this building a good six months before we bought it. It was larger than what we needed, but it has turned out fabulous.”
Dutch House Confections currently employs five people who are Hammje’s friends and neighbors.
They fill the kitchen with laughter and smiles as they make the sugary pleasures, but there is a special candy wrapping machine that also does a great deal of the work. From the back of a confectionery magazine, Hammje found a 1950s Rose wrapping machine. It needed some repair and calibration before it could be used, so they contacted a gentleman from South Carolina who was originally from England and worked on the machines as a teenager.
“These machines are old and there is no instruction manual for them. It’s really trial and error. When this gentleman came from South Carolina, my husband John was able to work side by side with him. There are so many moving parts and one little adjustment can mess up something you didn’t anticipate. We are very cautious about changing anything on the machine,” said Hammje.
Customers who had fallen in love with the soft texture and rich flavor of their original caramel began requesting additional flavors. To help expand her market, Hammje began experimenting with flavors. Coffee and raspberry were their first flavored caramels. Today, they also offer chocolate, black licorice and sea salt varieties. Sea salt is by far their best seller after original.
“We probably will add some new flavors. We do cranberry as a special order for a customer. We might add that for the holidays. I also get a lot of requests at shows for holiday packaging. Before we moved here, I didn’t have the space to buy the special packaging. Now I can think about it.”
Unlike many of the large distributors, Dutch House Confections does not have a minimum requirement on their orders as they strive to be flexible for small businesses. It is this versatility that has allowed Hammje to capture markets across the country.
“Small businesses is our bread and butter,” said Hammje. “I don’t think we’d do that much better with the larger businesses.”
What was once a delicious item from a bakeshop is now a business that has expanded many times and continues to grow. It has brought an opportunity to the community and offers a wholesale option for a special retro candy.
For Hammje and her employees, it has offered a sweet alternative to making a living.