|Tom Thekkekandam pours xylitol-based caramel |
into molds in his home kitchen. The caramel
is intended to help teeth, not hurt them.
Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange
For candy makers, Valentine's Day is the second-sweetest sales day of the year, bested only by Halloween. For dentists, it's a different story. No one can ruin the dream of creamy chocolates or sticky caramels quite so easily as the person pressing a metal prong against a weak spot on your tooth. Thanks to a pair of Durham entrepreneurs, including a pediatric dentist, it doesn't have to be that way.
Tommy Thekkekandam and Dr. Sindhura "Jenny" Citineni are the couple behind Tom & Jenny's caramels, which they sell in four-ounce packages at area food stores and in local dental offices. Their blooming popularity has forced the pair to seek out a larger production facility. Billed as "deliciously good for teeth," the treats swap sugar for xylitol, a natural sweetener popular in Europe and Asia. The audacious marketing claim stems from studies that show that the plant-based xylitol can reduce cavity-causing bacteria and enamel-eroding acidity. It's a little candy revolution, just in time for Valentine's Day and National Children's Dental Health Month.
They taste great, too. Unlike some candies made with artificial sweeteners, which can impart a deal-breaking bitterness, Tom & Jenny's have all the rich flavor and velvety mouthfeel of traditional caramel. That was essential for Citineni, whose motivation was to help frustrated parents in search of more tooth-friendly sweets for their kids. The pair first experimented with Gummi Bear-type candies and chocolates, but those options presented costly challenges with flavor and texture.
"When we started doing research, we found caramel was one of the fastest growing food categories," Thekkekandam says. "It was the most ripe for innovation. You could start with small batches, and it's relatively easy to cook."
The final recipes came in collaboration with renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, known to many for his work with Top Chef: Just Desserts. He also spent eight years creating dynamic desserts for Le Bernardin in New York City, earning four stars from The New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide. Those bona fides were initially intimidating for Thekkekandam and Citineni.
"I cringed when he tasted our first samples," Thekkekandam recalls of their first meeting in 2013. They had been home-testing their recipes for years, to the point that the kitchen of their Manhattan apartment was dusted with "white crystalline substances" in a way that reminded him of the drug drama Breaking Bad.
"We knew it was a long shot," Thekkekandam says of Laiskonis, "but he thought they were good enough to work with us."
Laiskonis has built his reputation by transforming real sugar into sweet delicacies. For him, the idea of Tom & Jenny's offered an intriguing alternative.
"While I do normally operate in a world where conventional sugars and confectionery techniques reign, the challenge in breaking down those techniques and formulas and reconstructing them is at the heart of what I do," Laiskonis says. "On top of that, I had a lot of fun helping to guide and encourage such a unique start-up—not to mention all of the insight gained on how different sweeteners influence dental health."
The renowned chef came up with several iterations of the couple's original formula, including chocolate caramel. The final recipe yielded a meltingly tender chew without cloying sweetness. To test the appeal, they set up a table at the upscale Long Island City Flea & Food market. Despite the premium pricing, they sold 300 bags in a few weekends.
Thekkekandam and Citineni met as UNC graduate students. They returned to the Triangle after she completed her pediatric dentistry residency in New York in 2014. She bought a forty-year-old practice, Triangle Kids Pediatric Dentistry, and he quit his consulting job to work full-time on building the candy business.
Currently, Tom & Jenny's caramels come from their state-certified home kitchen, but the couple is in the process of transitioning to a commercial producer. That will allow them to scale up production and expand their product line before Halloween and Christmas—so far, these factors have limited the company's growth.
To expand the product line, Tom & Jenny's continues to consult with Laiskonis and another local pastry chef. Thekkekandam is cautious about sharing too many specifics because other companies, he says, are pursuing similar sugar alternatives, but they do plan to perfect those set-aside Gummi-style candies and chocolates and introduce some fancier confections for adults, including chocolate-enrobed caramels.
Selling more products should enable Tom & Jenny's to achieve another goal—directing more profits to charities that help at-risk children in need of nutritional and dental health. The couple has long been involved with social justice causes, notably the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Nourish International, which Citineni founded at UNC. The global organization helps communities in extreme poverty advance through sustainable development.
"They have an extraordinary executive director who is driving amazing growth," Thekkekandam says. "Through it and other channels, we hope Tom & Jenny's will soon be in a position to make a bigger commitment to social change."
That would be mighty sweet—even if it's sugar-free.
This post first appeared in Indy Week.