Wednesday, September 11, 2013
By Betsy Teter, HubCity Writers Project
My introduction to Dottie’s Toffee came at a dinner party on Spartanburg’s eastside when one of the hostesses brought a plate of flat, caramel-colored sweets from the kitchen and placed it on the table in front of me. “It’s the food of the Gods, y’all,” she said. “This stuff is like crack.”
I ate a quarter-sized piece, then another, then another. I waited for the other guests’ heads to turn to the opposite end of the table, then moved my hand ever so slowly to the plate again. I knew I was going to have to go in search of my own stash.
The hostess directed me to Fresh Market, where a few days later I bought my first “tube,” a turquoise-colored canister with four ounces of crisp, buttery deliciousness.
And then something amazing happened: a nondescript sign went up on a backstreet in downtown Spartanburg about a block from where I work. It simply read: Toffee. I stopped my car in the street. “Handmade in Sparkle City, U.S.A,” the front window said. “Dottie’s Toffee.”
Here was the kitchen, the fountainhead, the source. So I stop in one day and meet Nick Belmont, a personable 33-year-old Wofford College economics graduate who—with one four-burner stove—has turned his grandmother’s recipe into a product now selling in stores across several states. Wearing Nike tennis shoes, blue shorts and a white knit shirt, he was just getting ready to start a new batch.
Were others having the same reaction to Dottie’s Toffee that I had had?
“I got a call from a woman here recently who said I was in trouble,” Nick tells me as he leans against the door to his small office. “She couldn’t get off my candy. She had eaten a whole tube for ten straight days.”
Dottie’s Toffee is now sold in gourmet groceries and gift shops from the Lowcountry to New York City, Nick says. The Dean & Deluca chain sells it in Napa Valley, Washington, D.C. Kansas City, and other spots. Many of the Fresh Markets and Whole Foods stores in the Southeast have picked it up.
Suddenly there is a face in the glass of the front door, a woman on the front stoop knocking. At the time of our interview, Nick wasn’t set up yet for retail sales (that begins in late fall 2013), but this woman—obviously a family friend—had driven downtown in need of some “crumbles” for the top of a dessert she was making at home. “I’ll pay you the $3 later, I promise,” she says, a bit frantically. “I left my wallet at home.” Nick comes out of the kitchen with a Ziplock bag of the good stuff.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, and she hurries away.
Nick’s been eating the candy as long as he can remember. When he was a child, growing up in Spartanburg in the 1980s, his grandmother Dot made it for friends, for church events, and for Christmas presents, tied up with ribbon in a cellophane bag. The wife of a state senator, Dot sent her toffee regularly to the South Carolina Statehouse, spreading some Spartanburg goodness to Columbia and beyond.
“Growing up, it was just always there in the fridge,” says Nick, now the father of a new daughter. “Eventually I started helping her make it.” Nick and his mom, Cindy Holland, convinced Dot that people would pay money for her toffee. They took it to a store on East Main Street. “I remember getting a check and thinking this is so weird. This is just something I made with my grandmother.”
In the beginning Nick considered calling the candy A Lot of Dot’s, but friends convinced him Dottie’s Toffee had a better ring to it. A sketch of Dot as a perky 25-year-old adorned the original plastic packaging. Dot and her friends at the Summit Hills assisted living center got a real kick out of that.
The phone rings; Nick silences it. Phone rings again. Better take this one. It’s mom, his business partner.
Dot is no longer around to see how far her toffee has traveled, but Nick has big plans for it. He now goes to national food product shows, passing out samples and signing up new retail customers.
Back in the tiny kitchen, it is time to make a small batch, enough to fill 20 tubes. On the stove there is a large skillet of high-end, gluten-free milk chocolate drops. A big pot awaits a brick-sized chunk of salt-free butter, a pitcher of cane sugar, and sea salt. Nick pulls a rubber glove on one hand, a stained baking mitt on another.
As everything begins to melt, the sweet aroma just about knocks me over.
Nick tips the hot toffee into a baking sheet, then pours the melted chocolate over it. Three kinds of almonds get sprinkled on top. Then the tray is off to the fridge for two hours. The toffee can then be broken up into small pieces, dropped into the festive-colored tubes, boxed and placed at the door for the UPS man.
Off to New York. Or D.C. Or the hardware store across town.
The good stuff, made in Spartanburg.
Now I know where to find it, and you do too.
Betsy Teter, HubCity Writers Project
For the past 18 years, Betsy has served as executive director of Spartanburg’s Hub City Writers Project, which publishes books by regional writers, runs literary educational programs, and operates the Hub City Bookshop at 186 West Main Street.