In our Nifty 50 spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Erika Henik, CEO of Sweet on Vermont. Sweet on Vermont sells artisan confections, is based in Burlington, Vermont, and has been in business for twenty-three years.
Robin: What type of candy do you sell?
Erika: We sell a full range of artisan confections. Our most popular products are our Vermont Maple Almond Brittle, which comes in three varieties, and our Mooonlight in Vermont chocolate bars, a line with nine varieties (four milk, five dark).
We also offer Peanut Butter Pigouts, which are like peanut butter truffles and go great with a cup of tea; Moo Chews, which are caramel-cashew turtles (perfect for people who like the combination of crunchy and chewy); Maple Caramels; Moo Mints, which are peppermint creams; and dark and milk chocolate bark.
We also offer specialty products at different times of year, like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc.; these range from assorted seasonal truffles to lollipops to whimsical molded chocolates.
Finally, we make custom favors for special occasions like weddings, bridal and baby showers, bar and bat mitzvahs, and birthday parties, as well as bespoke products for our wholesale customers as requested. Our products make great stand-alone gifts and are also excellent components of gift baskets.
R: Why did you decide to start this business?
E: I didn’t found Sweet on Vermont, but I’ve been connected to it since Day 1 and was even a part of its predecessor. It all started in 1986, when I was in college in New York City. I had a part-time job as an office assistant, where I met a woman who was making truffles out of her apartment to sell to gourmet food stores like The Silver Palette.
One day, she walked into the office where I worked and cracked a joke; I was the only one who laughed, so she asked me to work with her part-time in her chocolate business, and the rest is history.
I knew nothing about chocolate when I started, but I worked two to three nights a week in this tiny New York City kitchen, making ganache, tempering chocolate, dipping and decorating truffles by hand, packaging, the whole gamut. I even delivered the orders via the subway! I learned a lot over those four years.
After I graduated, I moved to California, and she moved to Burlington and eventually founded Sweet on Vermont. For the next 20 years, we discussed SoV by phone all the time, and every once in a while she’d ask me to go into business with her.
But I was busy building a career in financial services, getting married, having children, etc. Eventually my husband and I moved back to the East Coast, and I purchased the business from my friend, who was ready to retire. It was really nice, it felt like the transfer of a family business because I knew it so intimately. It really felt like I was coming home.
R: What types of changes have you made to your chocolates over the years?
E: When I first started working with chocolate in the 1980s, truffles were very popular, especially in New York. Artisan chocolate bars took off in the 1990s, and the Mooonlight in Vermont bars were among the first artisan bars on the market.
Meanwhile, Vermont is of course known for its maple syrup and butter, so putting them together in a maple almond brittle was a no-brainer. When I took over the business in 2013, I adjusted our brittle recipe, adding more nuts to make it more savory and more crunchy. The brittle is now our best seller.
Our big innovation for this year is our Everything Brittle, which is like a buttered everything bagel without the bagel. It’s based on our original brittle recipe, but then folds sesame seeds, poppy seeds, salt, onion and garlic into each piece and features a crunchy layer of the mixed seasonings on top. I love it because it brings together flavors of New York and Vermont and represents the full circle of my relationship to the business.
But the truth is that we innovate all the time. We brainstorm about what seasonal flavors and specialty products to offer for every holiday and special occasion, and we craft serendipitous recipes based on trends in the market. For example, a few years ago we offered a matcha-based hot chocolate kit. It was delicious!
R: How do you make your product? What’s your process like?
E: We make everything ourselves by hand in small batches. For our brittle, we melt the butter and then slowly pour in the maple syrup and other ingredients. We stir and stir, and when the mixture burbles and pops, we add the almonds and roast them to perfection. Once the color changes to a luscious golden brown, we gently pour the brittle onto our cooling table.
Then, we spread it by hand, cut it by hand, and even pack up every pouch and box by hand. I’d rather hire a person and create a job than buy a machine. For our chocolate, we temper our proprietary blends slowly and carefully to give our final product a beautiful sheen and that sharp “snap!” you hear when you take a bite or break off a piece. And all of our chocolate products are molded, dipped and packaged by hand. It’s a lovingly tactile process!
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
E: All of our confections are handmade, so every day is different. Orders change based on New England tourism trends and the seasons. One day can be spent dipping brittle and making chocolate bars, another crafting Vermont maple caramels.
We also make our specialty confections to order, so when someone orders Moo Chews or Peanut Butter Pigouts, or if we are preparing a custom order of wedding favors, for example, we adjust our production schedule accordingly to ensure that our customers are getting the freshest treats we can provide.
My favorite part of the business is the people. Our wholesale customers are typically small businesses like mine; some are family run. I love getting out and visiting the stores that carry our products. The shop owners are always happy to put faces to names and show me where our products are placed.
I have nice relationships with my customers and view them as partners. In fact, the idea for our brittle pouches came from conversations with customers who told me they’d love a grab-and-go, lower-price-point version of our larger brittle boxes. My customers know what’s happening in their stores, and they are my best source of information about where the market is heading.
But my all-time favorite is meeting “end customers,” the folks who actually consume our products, which I do when I participate in food shows or do demos in a store. When we’re doing production in our factory, I can only imagine what someone’s face will look like when they open our package and taste our product.
But at demos and events, I can watch people enjoying in real-time! They close their eyes, bend their knees and seem to melt as they go “Mmmmmm!” That is the ultimate gratification. And sometimes, after someone has finished and walked away, they come back with another person, saying, “You have to taste this,” and the whole thing starts again.
Last, but definitely not least, are the team members in our production facility. Our business is seasonal, so we have several team members who come back year after year, making time for SoV around their other jobs and commitments because they know that SoV is a safe, fun and satisfying place to work.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
E: I self-funded my purchase of the business, but we quickly became profitable, and the business has been self-sustaining ever since.
R: Where was the first place you sold your product?
E: When I first got involved in the chocolate business in New York, we sold to gourmet and specialty food shops all over the city. In Vermont, SoV started with a similar type of customer. Small, independently owned gourmet and specialty food and country stores.
R: Where do you sell your product now?
E: Sweet on Vermont products are sold all over Vermont in gourmet and specialty food stores, food co-ops, B&Bs, inns, gift shops, flower shops, wine stores and ski resorts, and we are expanding our reach across New England. You can see our customer list here. During the year-end holiday season, we are also available in the New York Tri-State Area.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
E: Everywhere! It’s high time that the rest of America got to know Sweet on Vermont! Why should New England have all the fun? In all seriousness, my goal is for SoV to have a presence in any shop that sells gourmet or specialty artisan food products.
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
E: Believe it or not, SoV has gotten as far as it has through word of mouth. I always say that our products sell themselves. But that’s hard to sustain as we expand beyond New England, so we have invested in social media, especially Instagram, to spread the word. Many of our vendors and wholesale customers are active on social media, too, and I see opportunities for us to support one another on those platforms.
We also keep in touch with existing customers over email and social media platforms (usually Instagram and Facebook) to alert them to holiday specials, new products and events where they can come meet us in person and try our latest offerings. But we don’t bombard them with messages, so they know that when we post or send an email, it’s worth opening.
Finally, I do shows and demos about once a month on average, and I develop relationships with new customers, new stores, and new vendors almost every time I’m out there.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Sweet on Vermont?
E: I consider every new customer a victory. My favorite on that front is when a store owner calls me and says, “I saw your product at a competitor’s store and bought some. It was so delicious that I want to carry it in my store, too!” You’d be amazed at how often that happens.
My biggest publicity coup was having our Hottie Chocolate featured in the New York Times Valentine’s Day Gift Guide in 2018. The best part of that was seeing people who’d ordered the Hottie Chocolate, or who’d received it as a gift, return to our website to order more SoV products after Valentine’s Day had come and gone.
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
E: I don’t “sell” my product. It sells itself. I introduce people to my product, and they realize on their own how amazing it is. I don’t have to say a word. One of my favorite things about Sweet on Vermont is that it’s not about faster, cheaper or smaller. It’s about taste. All I have to do is get you to try our confections, and the rest takes care of itself.
R: Do you have any favorite business advice or quotes?
E: 1) Listen to your customers. 2) You can’t do it alone, you’re part of an ecosystem. 3) Your employees are as important as your customers.
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
E: It is tremendously satisfying to create and provide people with products that are so beloved and that make them happy. Our product line is wide enough that there is something for almost everyone: milk chocolate lovers, dark chocolate lovers, people who love spicy, minty, creamy, chewy, crunchy, etc. I can usually find something in our line-up that makes someone smile.
I am also very proud to have created an environment that people want to work in. I’m inspired by the passion and commitment our team members feel toward our business, and I am committed to maintaining those relationships and to creating good jobs with meaningful work.