Ali Clark Yahnke’s favorite season for candy making has always been winter. Growing up in Wisconsin, she loved activities that imparted feelings of warmth and comfort such as cooking and knitting and has fond memories of enjoying handmade caramels from her grandfather at the holidays. One year at Thanksgiving she visited her grandparents and Ali’s grandfather taught her the craft of making caramels. Every year from then on, she has made many batches of caramel to share with friends and family, not knowing that one day her hobby would turn into a burgeoning candy business.
After moving to Omaha in 2011, Ali made small batches of caramels that she’d share with her new community. Having sold at the farmer’s market for her other job as a market farmer, she thought to bring a batch of caramels to the last market of the season. In no time she’d sold out, and soon customers asked how to get them to give as gifts for the holidays. Soon she was selling at holiday markets and as sales grew, Ali realized she wanted to turn her hobby into a business. Reflecting back on her love of winter, she recalled a time she had gone snowshoeing in the mountains, and the name seemed to fit perfectly: Snowshoe Candy Company, “a simple way to enjoy winter,” she said.
For the first few years Ali made her candy in a stock pot, stirring the caramel by hand. Because caramel melts easily in warm temperatures, she only makes caramels during the cooler months. Batches were small, and demand kept growing. When she heard about Cox Communications’ Get Started Omaha pitch competition to help entrepreneurs, she decided to send in a submission, and was selected as one of six finalists. “The biggest barrier to my growth was using modified home cooking equipment,” Ali explained. “Winning $7500 in the competition allowed me to buy a commercial cooker.”
After working with a pitch coach, Ali practiced her two and a half minute presentation in front of the mirror. Following her presentation, a panel of four judges asked questions about her business. “All the pitches were so strong and with good business plans, but I felt good afterward,” she said. Her preparation paid off—Snowshoe Candy Co. was the winner of the 2017 Get Started Omaha pitch competition. She won $7500 cash and a $2500 Cox Media package. “I was shocked that I won!” Ali said. Not only was she able to buy a top of the line copper cooker, but she was also able to build out a professional kitchen.
With the Cox Media package, she decided to create a video to use for a crowdfunding campaign to purchase another piece of equipment: a wrapping machine. Raising more than $15,000, Ali plans to buy a wrapping machine that will automate what she has previously done by hand—the tedious process of wrapping caramels with small squares of wax paper. “Many of the machines that work for small scale candy businesses today were used to wrap cough drops in apothecaries in the early 1900s,” she said. She has also purchased a stirrer, so she no longer has to endure the pain in her arm of stirring by hand.
With her recent success in purchasing professional equipment, Ali said she will be able to make batch sizes 10 times what she made previously. “Last year my mom helped me with holiday orders, and we wrapped 12,000 caramels by hand just in the month of November.” All caramel orders are made fresh within a week of being shipped out. And each year she becomes more efficient. “I’m no longer hand-writing shipping labels,” she said.
Snowshoe’s online store is open through the holidays, and she also does weddings and corporate gifts. In addition to caramels, Ali also makes chocolate covered cherries, nut brittle, and even lollipops. But the sea salt caramels are most people’s favorite. And no wonder—Ali makes her own vanilla extract and uses locally-sourced butter. She also added sea salt to her grandfather’s original recipe, and heats the caramel two degrees lower. “Mine are a little softer than his,” she said.
Although Ali has experienced rapid growth recently, it took her a long time to get where she’s at and the support of a lot of people. “My husband Scott has been so supportive of everything, and the Omaha Makers community is incredible,” she said. “All new businesses are at a different point in their process, and it requires patience, perseverance, and creativity.” A decadent caramel doesn’t hurt either.
To place your holiday candy order, visit snowshoecandyco.com.