A woman strides up to the Jonboy Caramels booth at the Ballard Farmers Market and plucks a sample of their fleur de sel. “Mmmm!” she booms, turning heads. “Didn’t think you could improve on a caramel, but man!”
She’s not the first to say it: Edible Seattle has raved about the way the buttery caramels (named for co-confectioner Jonathan “Jonboy” Sue) pack “intense flavor,” being “totally sophisticated while feeling very sweet and simple.” Stephanie Zonis of Goodlifer calls them “gently chewy before melting in your mouth”—and not, one could add, sticking to your teeth.
After four years in business, Jonboy is not only expanding around the Northwest, but (drumroll, please . . . ) was just picked up nationally by Dean & Deluca. The confectioners are also celebrating their birthday this spring with a new toy that will significantly change their production. Hand-wrapped no longer, the caramels will be packaged by a 45-year-old English-made machine which is no longer manufactured and thus extremely scarce. Made by Rose Forgrove, this machine is ideal for Jonboy because it’s not computerized like modern machinery, thus easier to maintain and service.
Fear not, the caramels will still look the same, but now can be twisted into glory at a rate of 60 per minute and 28,000 per day. Until now, the caramels have been wrapped almost exclusively by employee Carson Ferguson, who is “actually really fast.” According to Sue’s business partner Jason Alm, he completes about 2,400 caramels a day, or 160 boxes of 15; Alm estimates that Carson has probably wrapped half a million in all. In tribute, Jonboy is considering naming the new machine after its human counterpart, and is plotting to mark the occasion with a “Carson versus the machine” event.
These local confections have come a long way from their beginnings as Christmas gifts for Sue’s friends. Sue and Alm never expected it would be more than side income. So how is Jonboy nailing it so completely?
Alm has a few ideas. One is the weather. “Seattle is the perfect place for this type of product,” he says. “In many places, the caramels would melt in the summer and be too hard in the winter.” Here, their trademark non-sticky “gentle” chewiness is achieved, and we start to understand what puts Jonboy over.
Quality ingredients help—Smith Brothers cream, Organic Valley local butter, organic cane sugar, and organic brown-rice syrup instead of corn syrup—as does their sweet, simple packaging: The cylindrical caramels are wrapped in non-bleached parchment paper and packed in small recycled brown boxes. Then there are the flavors themselves, which Alm describes as “kind of what you expect, but more”: the classic fleur de sel; absinthe with black salt (the liqueur’s from Woodinville’s Pacific Distilleries); toasted coconut; whiskey and smoked salt; balsamic berry (available in summer); and molasses ginger (fall).
Alm says he and Sue imagine what would make a good flavor combination with their caramels’ texture. They build and intensify flavor by using both extracts and raw ingredients. Also, those farmers markets help, both with ideas from customers and the company they provide. “Being next to the berry people is how we came up with balsamic berry,” he says.
Where to get them: Local farmers markets (Ballard, Broadway,
West Seattle, U District, Edmonds, Bellevue); PCC; Whole Foods (in Wash., Ore., or B.C.); at jonboycaramels.com; and at a number of local boutiques, including Eat Local, Watson Kennedy, Pear Delicatessen, and Sugar Pill.
How to eat them: Enjoy them after a meal, ideally either alone or paired with alcohol; a lighter pilsner compliments the fleur de sel, and port and stout go well with the molasses ginger. E