As the “& Sons” implies, family and community are never far from Laurie’s mind; she describes her company as “a modern twist on the old family business with mom as the president.” For Laurie & Sons, however, the old family business has a global responsibility too. Laurie’s family makes yearly philanthropic trips, most recently via Villages in Partnership Africa, in addition to supporting more local initiatives such as City Harvest. Today, her Harlem-based professional kitchen is the heart and home of both a burgeoning culinary empire as well as a space for growing community jobs and activism.
Mood of Living Q&A
Mood of Living: What is the history behind Laurie & Sons?
Laurie Pauker: As a young professional and new mom, I worked in marketing & advertising. When I decided to stay home with my 3 boys, my creative urges guided me to candy making. My boys were the inspiration to create recipes with the best quality organic ingredients that I could find – no additives, artificial ingredients, food colorings, or preservatives. I wanted to feel good about letting the boys enjoy them, too. As they grew up, they were the original tasting team.
MoL: What were some of the challenges Laurie & Sons encountered in the beginning?
LP: The challenge starting a food venture in New York City is tremendous. Rents are crazy high and building out a kitchen takes serious capital. Getting the gas turned on in our new kitchen was the crusher. It took five months to work through the permitting, testing, and finally, blue pilot lights for our all our equipment! But we haven’t looked back since.
MoL: What was the “aha” moment when you felt like you had made it?
LP: There have been several. It was thrilling last summer when Laurie & Sons was awarded the Gold sofi™ in the Chocolate Category at the Fancy Food show. It was the equivalent of winning the food “Oscar” — my son Johnny and went on stage and made acceptance speeches! I felt it again when Food & Wine named us one of the best new candies of 2015. But if peer acceptance matters most, it was when our Ginger Toffees received an award from the International Chocolate Association last month. Or maybe it was the moment five years ago when my husband, David, who is not a candy lover, took a bite of my toffee and said he liked it.
MoL: Congratulations on the awards! What do you think the most recent win will mean for Laurie & Sons, creatively and commercially?
LP: It’s more than just another trophy on the shelf. Specialty food retailers compete for customers by constantly updating their offerings to include the newest and most interesting products. So every time we win an award or receive positive media attention it results directly in new retail customers for us. For example, after this past show, the New York Daily News mentioned our new Ginger Toffee as one of the “10 Best Things We Ate at the Fancy Food Show”. The next day we started getting more calls! Creatively, the awards and recognition motivate us to continuously experiment and move forward with new ideas. Right now, we are playing with lemons…
MoL: Part of your journey is Laurie & Sons’ active involvement in philanthropy – what inspired you to make giving back a key part of your business?
LP: When my family and I launched this business, we recognized that if you live in a place where you can savor chocolate, you are incredibly privileged. The vast number of the people needed to plant, grow, and transport our core ingredients (chocolate, sugar and vanilla) to the United States made us feel that giving back had to be a central tenant of the company.
MoL: Can you describe your involvement in Malawi with Villages in Partnership and in West Africa with Oxfam?
LP: Villages that rely on subsistence farming throughout Africa face a never-ending battle against hunger and poverty. They are always just one dry season away from calamity. Food relief is not the long-term answer. My family and I support several organizations that help villages help themselves. Last summer we travelled to Africa with the not-for-profit group Villages in Partnership, which provides development support to 26 underserved villages in the Sakata region of Malawi. The group has helped the villages get access to seeds and fertilizer, introduce more productive crops, learn more efficient farming techniques, establish animal husbandry as an income source, start irrigation projects, drill wells for clean water and much more. We have committed 10 cents per bag to VIP for the next year.
We also support Oxfam and their focus on empowering women cocoa farmers. Demand for cocoa is rising all over the world. Women play a big role in cocoa production but the contributions of their labor are frequently undervalued. Empowering women in these communities leads to improved lives of everyone in the communities. Women who control their own money reinvest in their families and communities which directly improves the well-being community and the sustainability of these cocoa-producing villages. This program is certainly near to our hearts.
MoL: Where do you source your ingredients?
LP: We work with a San Francisco-based 5th generation chocolate manufacturer, Guittard Chocolate, that is particularly concerned with maintaining heirloom cacao for the future. We use their Fair Trade chocolate. We source our sea salt from Maine, from a small business that uses solar power to evaporate their salt. Our Eco-Social organic cane sugar comes from Brazil.
MoL: Please describe your toffee-making process:
LP: The first thing in the morning, I pull the blocks of fresh AA creamery butter from the refrigerator. I open them up, slice them into quarters with a knife, and let them warm up to room temperature. While the butter is warming up, I measure out the organic cane sugar, the filtered water, the Maine sea salt, and the baking soda.
Next, I add the butter to the kettle, let the butter melt and come to a boil, and then add in the fresh water – and quickly thereafter, the salt. When everything comes back to a rolling boil, I mix in the organic cane sugar and cook everything up to 309.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pouring out the toffee onto the 10 gauge steel table is the crowning moment. I tip the kettle over and then smooth out the entire batch on the table. I then use special disk cutters (think of lots of round blades on a dowel), pushing them smoothly through the toffee to cut them into tiles. The team helps me to pack up all the toffee into storage boxes and move them into our special chocolate cold room, where step two begins.
Once in the cold room, we temper (or prepare) the chocolate to make it ready for coating the toffee. Basically, we bring the cocoa butter crystals into their most stable state. When the chocolate is ready, we begin hand-dipping toffees in the chocolate using special confectioner’s forks. We place the chocolate dipped toffees onto parchment paper and then sprinkle a few grains of sea salt on the top to dry. I love seeing the finished trays full of lines of toffees late in the day!
MoL: What is the future vision for Laurie & Sons?
LP: We’d like to expand to offer better quality snacks in other categories – savory snacks, for example. We’d also like to provide jobs for the community and job training for young people considering careers in the food business, as well as to continue to offer field trips for local schools. I’ve had a 1st and 2nd grade class in to learn about and see chocolate making before their eyes, and it is quite a rush! The kids love it.
MoL: What advice can you give anyone looking to start their own business?
LP: You just have to believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer.
MoL: What is the best advice you have ever received, and from whom?
LP: “Focus exclusively on product excellence, and everything else will come” – my friend, Helen Park, a chef.
MoL: Where do you go for peace of mind or spirit?
LP: To the lake. Being on the water makes you new again!
MoL: Do you spend time crafting a lovely home, cooking, or entertaining?
LP: My husband and I love to cook. We’ll spend days planning a menu for a holiday dinner or family barbeque. Fortunately, we have lots of friends and family who are happy to sample our food experiments!
Laurie and her sons working with Villages in Partnership in Malawi.
Facebook: Laurie and Sons
Photography courtesy of Laurie & Sons.