This Durham candy maker wants your Valentine’s Day to be more sweet than guilty

Tom & Jenny’s make a sugar-free caramel candy. The company wants to expand into other candy and snacks.
Tom & Jenny’s make a sugar-free caramel candy. The company wants to expand into other candy and snacks. Anna Routh Photography.

Four years ago, Dr. Sindhura “Jenny” Citineni was a dentist frustrated by patients routinely coming into her office complaining about their kids’ cavities.

None of the patients, it seemed, were interested in actually taking her advice of swapping out sugar-filled candies for sugar-free alternatives.

“They were probably like, ‘Yes, the dentist is always going to say that,’” said Citineni, who runs Triangle Kids Pediatric Dentistry in Durham.

To be fair, the sugar-free options didn’t taste as good, she said.

So, she and her husband started Tom & Jenny’s – a candy-making startup that manufactures a sugar-free caramel treat they swear tastes as good as the real thing, while being less harmful to teeth and diets.

Customers seem to agree.

When they started, the couple, who met as undergrads at UNC-Chapel Hill, baked the caramel in their Durham home, making 30 pounds a week. “It looked like a ‘Breaking Bad’ kitchen when me and my husband started,” Citineni said.

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Tom Thekkekandam and Dr. Jenny Citineni, a Durham couple that launched a healthy candy company. Anna Routh Photography.

Now, they have their own manufacturer – located in the Midwest – and are producing 4,000 to 5,000 pounds every two months. The couple declined to reveal revenue figures for the company, however they said holiday-season sales on Amazon doubled in 2017 from the holiday period in 2016.

Not only are they producing more, but you can find their candy in more places. Thirty retailers now carry their candy, with 70 more in the pipeline, said Tom Thekkekandam, a former consultant for the global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., who left his job to grow the company full time.

Locally you can find Tom & Jenny’s in Foster’s Market, Southern Season, Beer Durham and Bulldega, among other places. They are also looking to expand beyond caramel into other candies and snacks, including more chocolate-based treats.

For those that are quick to dismiss sugar-free as a lesser-quality imitation of the real thing, the recipe for Tom & Jenny’s was co-signed by a pastry chef with multiple Michelin stars in his resume.

Chef Michael Laiskonis, a James Beard award winner and former executive pastry chef at the New York restaurant Le Bernardin, agreed to help them fine-tune their recipe after Thekkekandam cold called him one day.

“(He told me) to come on in and bring a sample,” Thekkekandam said. “I was nervous as hell to bring in my homemade, hand-wrapped caramel. This guy is going to laugh me out of the room.”

But instead of laughing, Laiskonis became intrigued and helped the couple do multiple runs of testing before settling on the final recipe.

So how does it work?

The caramel is sweetened with the plant-based molecular compound xylitol, which eliminates cavity-causing bacteria and reduces oral acidity.

“(Xylitol) is in the sugar alcohol family, which is neither sugar nor alcohol,” Thekkekandam said. “We get them from corn or birch trees, but the sugar alcohols that we use are natural but have a slightly different molecular structure, so the body digests them differently. That is why there are fewer calories and carbs.”

Xylitol is used in many sugar-free chewing gums as well.

Though, Tom & Jenny’s designed the candy for those worried about cavities, the candy has proven popular with a different segment.

“The vast majority of people buying were not dental-concerned parents,” Thekkekandam said. “It was people with diabetes who were frustrated by sugar-free options, or they were these fit and educated people trying to cut out sugar.”

Thekkekandam said he hopes 2018 will be the year the candy’s footprint expands past North Carolina. A few shops in states like Tennessee and Mississippi already have the candy, but Tom & Jenny’s hopes to be in 500 physical retail locations by the end of the year.

“Back when I was still a consultant and she had the idea to make Tom & Jenny’s,” Thekkekandam recalled, “one of the things she kept harping on was the fact M&Ms and Snickers can talk to these customers every day (through advertising), while (a dentist) can only talk to them every six months – if they are good patients.

“We should fight fire with fire. Her whole initial impetus was let’s create a brand that can combat that.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes