- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) - Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not hard to find a person in Boulder who dreams of starting a food company.

That is, unless you mean an actual dream, the kind that comes to you when you’re asleep. One night, JJ Rademaekers had a dream in which he encountered a Willy Wonka-like character that took him into a laboratory and showed him fantastical candies.

After the dream, Rademaekers, who was then at a bit of a crossroads career-wise, did not decide to seek out an acolyte of Sigmund Freud to figure out what the dream might signify.

Instead he decided to interpret his literal dream literally and start a candy company,

“The idea of making candy was totally off my radar,” Rademaekers says.

But as a self-described “longtime kitchen geek,” it made a lot of sense to him. It helped that he had worked as a scientist, a musician and a director of operations for a green space,

“(I had) the idea to make delicious candies, innovative and better for you,” he says. “I started playing around with a bunch of natural candies.”

Thus, Rademaekers, who does not eat dairy products, came up with the idea for a chewy caramel candy made with coconut milk. He called them Cocomels, and his company, JJ’s Sweets, was the first to market with the concept, Rademaekers says.

This month, the company received a Good Food award from a San Francisco nonprofit that gives the award, which spans 13 categories, to companies that emphasize sustainability in their products and practices. In addition to doing good in their practices, the winners have to make a product that tastes good in a blind tasting by food professionals.

JJ Sweet’s Coconut Palm Sugar Cocomel was the variety that won.

“It has a very good, smooth and satisfying texture, and the combination of the flavor of coconut milk and the addition of palm sugar is totally delicious,” says Jesse Manis, Good Food Awards Confections co-chair and co-founder of Cacao in Portland, Ore.

It took a while, though, to get from dream to accolade.

When Rademaekers first began tinkering in 2009, he made hard candies, as well as some brittles.

He began selling at the Boulder Farmers Market in 2010 and discovered what other food entrepreneurs had before him - that the market provides a built-in focus group of consumers geared toward natural products.

“You get direct feedback and read facial expressions,” Rademaekers says of watching market-goers sample his products. “We could see what people were buying.”

That was the Cocomels.

In the beginning, Rademaekers made the candies himself in a big copper kettle in a commercial kitchen, hand-cutting, hand-wrapping and hand- packaging the products.

At that point, his science background kicked in as the company scaled up.

“So much of what we do in manufacturing and in sales is data-driven,” Rademaekers says.

Today, distribution of the company’s candies is almost nationwide, Rademaekers says. Many of the sales are in natural-food stores, as befits the candy’s beginnings and natural and organic ingredients. But they also can be found in places such as airports where, as Rademaekers puts it, people need “some little piece of edible bliss.”

It doesn’t hurt, though, that the candies meet the Good Food criteria.

“We put (the candies) through a vetting process for ingredient sourcing and the production process,” says Christine Schantz, managing director of programs and community.

In the confection category, that includes such things as being free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, genetically modified ingredients and high-fructose corn syrup.

Rademaekers is happy to tout these attributes, as well as the fact the candies are organic, gluten free, dairy free and kosher.

But he admits that, for many consumers, those are secondary considerations.

“To be blunt, nobody is eating candy for health reasons,” Rademaekers says. “Candy is an experiential food. You’re eating for some type of reward, an escape.”

If you can feel good about that amid the pleasure circuits lighting up in your brain, so much the better.


Information from: Daily Times-Call, https://timescall.com/

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