If good cooking comes from the heart, good food business ideas come from … left field? That’s where Leanne Cordisco says she got the idea to start her candy company. And if it’s true, the combination of mentorship, sound business advice, a supportive environment, philanthropy and a great toffee recipe suggest this left field is right out of the Field of Dreams.
Cordisco is a biomedical engineer by training, and she’s spent the last two years installing and fixing operating equipment. Serious stuff. Life and death. By her own admission she “wanted something a little less intense” as a counterpoint to her day job. She’d always dreamed of owning a restaurant (editor’s note to Leanne: remember what you said about intensity?) but wanted to work on her own terms. How those terms led her to Christine’s Toffee is the genuine article.
While still working in biomedicine, Cordisco went back to school for a business degree. She chose Edgewood College—a hidden jewel of higher education, she calls it—where she met business professor Denis Collins. She asked Collins if he knew any angel investors and Collins invited her to join a group of students he was taking to meet with Sam Jacobsen, the legendary Madison businessman who started the PDQ convenience store chain and, in his retirement, was helping young entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.
Something clicked, and the next week Jacobsen asked Cordisco to meet with him again. “He said, ‘Leanne, you’ve got something. I’ve always had this idea in the back of my mind to start a candy company and I’ve been waiting for the right person to come along. I think you’re the right person.’” Jacobsen believed in Cordisco enough that when the original plan to create and market the chocolate popcorn ball of Jacobsen’s youth failed after a year of work he said to her, “So now what are we going to make?” She had some toffee samples with her and gave him one. “He immediately lit up,” she says, “And said, ‘Show me the most successful businessman in the room and I’ll show you the person with the most failures. Because it’s the same person.’
“We talked about launching the toffee line and at the end of the meeting he said he was proud of me. I’ll carry that moment with me forever. I miss him greatly.”
Jacobsen passed away in late January, and while she can’t say for certain, Cordisco says she suspects she’s a beneficiary of the fund he established to help start-ups like hers. It’s clear he’s influenced her in other ways as well. “Sam was surrounded by very smart, loyal people. It’s a credit to him and it’s a tremendous legacy,” she says. “Perhaps because of his own high standard of ethical behavior and treating people with respect, people of the same caliber were drawn to him. I’ve gotten to know some of them in the last few years and they all share the same traits—integrity, passion for what they do, and respect for others. Denis (Collins) and Sam are two of a kind, men with ‘been there, done that’ experience whose words match their actions,” she says. “I have tremendous respect for (both).”
Christine’s Toffee is named for Jacobsen’s mom. Most of the ingredients are a competitive secret but the bacon (that’s right, bacon—it was a big hit at the Madison Food and Wine Show last year) is from Usinger’s in Milwaukee and the coffee comes from Kickapoo Coffee in Viroqua. All varieties have the same seductive blend of butter, chocolate and salt. Cordisco says the bacon toffee’s been getting national exposure, and she’s getting one to two orders a week from all over the country. She’s hoping to have her own kitchen soon, and, sounding a lot like her mentor, says, “I will feel successful if I can create jobs with this business.”
You can find places selling Christine’s Toffee at Cordisco’s website, popularsnacks.com, but it’s available at many locations including Willy Street Co-op, Fromagination, Little Luxuries, Steve’s Liquor, Star Liquor and, of course, PDQ stores.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to email@example.com.