Toffee-making runs in the family for Dana Shinn-Weidner, the founder of locally made Sweet Dane’s Toffee (sweetdanes.com). The secret-recipe confection is available in beautifully packaged boxes from Halls on Grand in Crown Center and by mail order, and Shinn-Weidner hopes to roll out the delicious treat that bears her childhood nickname to other retailers in the Kansas City area in time for the holidays. We caught up with her to find out the tale behind the toffee.
Kansas City Spaces: How did you learn to make toffee?
Dana Shinn-Weidner: I’ve been making toffee my whole life and learned the technique from my awesome mom! Sweet Dane’s Toffee is made from a recipe that’s been in our family over 65 years. My mom grew up making it with my grandma, her aunts and sisters; then my sister and I grew up making it alongside Mom and Grandma.
Growing up, it was always that buttery, sugary smell that signified the beginning of the holiday season at our house. We couldn’t wait for Mom to make that first batch and would almost wrestle my dad down to get to the chocolate bowl first! (This was always our dad’s favorite candy, so it holds special memories for us.)
Mom comes over every day to work with me. She’ll never take any credit, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. My husband, Joel, also helps me a lot; he’s my muscle and helps keep the household going during our busy season. I have a lot of help with the younger, fourth generation, too. Our two sons and my niece and nephew love to help out when they can.
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KCS: How did it go from a family tradition to a business?
DSW: For years we’d given this toffee as gifts to friends and neighbors and we always got the comment: “This is so good you should sell it!” It was serendipitous that my husband took candy to his office before the holidays—one thing led to another, and his company asked if I would make it for holiday client gifts. That’s how Sweet Dane’s Toffee was born. Suite Options, now called ExecuStay, was our first customer and continues to purchase every year, and because of them we found our niche in the corporate gift market.
I enjoy being able to share this toffee with people. I love the product, and feel so fortunate to have this as my job. People are always happy to see me because they know I have candy!
What keeps me motivated is when someone tells me how much they love the toffee; it’s why I do what I do. It’s not only my motivator, but I also think of it as my report card.
KCS: What do you think makes your toffee special?
DSW: Often the first thing people mention about our toffee is that they love the texture and that it’s unlike other toffees that they’ve tasted. It’s easy to bite and has the perfect delicate crunch. Sweet Dane’s Toffee uses wholesome, simple ingredients and doesn’t contain any preservatives. We handcraft our toffee in small batches so that it always has that homemade taste.
Packaging is also extremely important to us. It’s the first thing a customer sees, and we want them to be blown away and feel that it’s truly a gift. We designed our signature boxes to be unlike the standard candy-store boxes. They’re black book-style boxes with our vivid logo foil-stamped on the lid and finished with a magenta satin bow.
KCS: What’s next for Sweet Dane?
DSW: We plan to slowly incorporate additional varieties of toffee: various types of chocolate and nuts, and possibly some infused flavors. We’re also playing around with some other products to add to the line-up. They’re still in the testing phase, so it’s a secret for now, but stay tuned!
Shinn-Weidner says she learned very quickly that making the toffee was the easy part of running Sweet Dane’s. To help get a handle on the aspects of her business that happen outside the kitchen, she enrolled in the Entrepreneurial Scholars Program through The Regnier Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Management. “It’s helped us work through our growing pains, and opened up incredible opportunities,” she says.
The cheerful confectioner has learned many lessons along the way, and believes one of the most important is to surround yourself with people more knowledgeable than you are. Of course, it also helps to pursue a business related to something you enjoy—though she admits that’s not always enough.
“It’s downright hard sometimes. But in the end, I’ve learned so many new skills and the hard work is worth it.”