Maker Stories

Inside the Caramel Sauce Kitchen with Michelle Lewis

June 15, 2016
Michelle Lewis | UncommonGoods

Michelle Lewis in her Brooklyn kitchen, photos by Rachel Orlow

I don’t know what I did to deserve the privilege of touring a commercial caramel kitchen–for work, no less. (Must be my excellent contributions to our blog.) I left home on a gorgeous, sunny day and strolled for a half-hour to a magical place where I got to taste sweet, buttery caramel sauce. Don’t hate me because my job is beautiful.

Michelle Lewis‘s caramel sauce company is located in a re-purposed factory building where a lot of ultra-Brooklyn-y small food firms make their products. Each floor is packed with entrepreneurs cooking up old-timey pickles, small-batch ice cream, kombucha, organic kimchee, pasta, bread, cookies, gourmet popsicles…it’s a veritable artisanal cornucopia. After we talked, Michelle gave me a few jars of insanely scrumptious caramel sauce to take home. It was fan-sticky-tastic.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

A corner of Michelle Lewis‘s caramel sauce kitchen

Here’s what Michelle had to say about evolving from a neophyte entrepreneur into a budding caramel sauce tycoon whose products are internationally craved.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

Haron Mohammed and Lwin Lwin packing caramel sauce in Michelle Lewis‘s kitchen

What are your most essential tools?
The people who work with me are the most essential “tools” I have. Since 2015 I rely on a refugee couple from Myanmar (Burma) to make the kitchen hum. Lwin and Haron make sauces, label all 3 sizes of jars and package them to send out to our 250 plus stores around the USA. I was lucky enough to meet Lwin and Haron through the IRC (International Refugee Committee). The IRC sent out an email to see if there was any interest in hiring through them. I invited them to come visit my space and it went from there.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

The two copper kettles where the caramel sauce is cooked. One of them is sitting inside an electric kettle. “The blue thing is the lift,” says Michelle. “The pots get so heavy with 60 pounds of caramel plus the dangerously high heat, it’s much wiser to have a machine to help lift and pour.”

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I like inviting friends to dinner in the company “kitchen” in the evening. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s a fabulous setting for a sit-down dinner for 8 or 10 people. It also inspires a lot of food talk!

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

Where does downtime fit into a day’s work?
This year I’m trying to make time for getting back into cello. Sounds pretentious but it’s the perfect balance to running a business, especially since I’m taking classes with kids. (I last played cello in elementary school.) There’s no room for feeling embarrassed with 8-year-old class mates!

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

Michelle Lewis and her refrigerator full of fresh butter and cream for her caramel sauce.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young maker starting a business?
First off, please take the word “young” out of the equation. I was 48 when I started Spoonable. Not young. And also not old. Mid-deep into middle age, picking up 50 pound bags of sugar brings special physical problems.

And it’s also where starting a food business is not part of the hipster conversation. I don’t think I’m purposely ignored because of my age. I think it’s more about missing out on the socializing that happens naturally among people of a similar age. And that socializing leads to opportunities that I may be missing out on.

So, there are difficult strength and PR lessons to learn. But the toughest lesson was that food companies, at least small and medium sized ones, do not work on contracts. The first purchase order is your contract. Agreements made by handshake, email or even a promissory note are not valid until you get a sacred P.O.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

A vat full of foaming, bubbling caramel sauce. Be still our hearts.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Learn how to say “no”. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. I think the inclination is to say yes to every opportunity that’s presented to you. You don’t want to miss a possible sale. And you feel a little panic when you do. But not all sales opportunities are healthy.

For instance, there’s lots of interest in buyers from overseas. And to be able to say I sell internationally is quite sexy! But for the most part, at the stage the company is, it’s not good for my bottom line, because I have to lower the price (exchange rates, shipping, etc.) so much I’m barely making anything per jar.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

Pouring finished caramel sauce into jars for sale.

How do you set goals for yourself?
I’ve set various goals — I want to be in x amount of stores by the end of the year. Or I want to get 8 new stores a week. Or I want to be making x amount of dollars by the end of my 5th year. There are all types of different goals you set for yourself. I make lists — daily, weekly and monthly.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?

By depositing the check that follows the first PO of a new customer.

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
No single quote by a famous person keeps me motivated, but honest opinions from the people closest to me are great motivators. Close friends are my cheer leaders. Close friends who have their own businesses are those I can bitch to, because they get it. My accountant keeps me down to earth. And my investors keep me striving.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire?
How to have a more nuanced reading of our numbers – something more than saying I made “this much” in 2015. P&L, profits, projections, individual account summaries – and then how to apply them to make us a more efficient company. Breaking it down into by region sales (NYC vs NY State), type of sales (retail vs. wholesale vs. bulk) and which flavor and size of jar sells best in which type of store (cheese stores do well with lavender).

Caramel Sampler - Set of 6 | UncommonGoods

Caramel sauce coma time

How do you recharge your creativity?
Watching a great movie. Cooking a delectable meal. Reading. Or going out for a martini with friend.

blogcta-caramel

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3 Comments

  • Reply Beth Strotman June 22, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Great inside scoop!

    • Reply Marisa June 22, 2016 at 12:31 pm

      Haha, we saw what you did there, Beth. Thanks for reading the blog! We’re glad you enjoyed this.

  • Reply Uncommon Impact: Counting Beads, Caramel and the IRC - The Goods | The Official Blog of UncommonGoodsThe Goods | The Official Blog of UncommonGoods June 22, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    […] the opportunity to see the IRC’s vocational training in action. As you may have seen in our latest studio tour, caramel maker Michelle Lewis makes her Brooklyn-based business hum with the help of her employees […]

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