Le Caramel opens new boutique store in El Cajon making its product available to the general public
It was a pretty hectic day last week at Le Caramel, the El Cajon maker of caramel candies and products, as owners Vincent and Christen Kugener showed off their new boutique store and gave tours to dozens of visitors eager to learn more about this delectable creation.
“Making caramel is very precise and you can’t mess it up,” Christen Kugener told a group of visitors. “It all has to be made at a certain temperature.”
The Kugeners’ strict adherence to quality and natural ingredients has set the business on a nice growth trend, especially since moving two years ago from Santee to El Cajon, in the shadow of Gillespie Field.
“We had been looking for a bigger building for quite a long time, and we hadn’t found anything, said Vincent Kugener about a small space on Woodside Avenue in Santee. “We came to this one by accident, but when I saw it, I knew this was going to work.”
The 7,000 square feet more than doubles its capacity and helped expand production. Today, the company has 13 employees, up from the seven it had about a year ago. Sales last year hit $2 million, compared to $1.6 million in 2014, he said.
The great bulk of Le Caramel’s approximately 100 customers are much larger food companies, he said. “Our caramel is in a lot of granola bars, nutrition bars, and anything that uses natural caramel,” he said.
The company makes the pure caramel sauces for some of the nation’s largest food companies who put their own private labels on it, he said. “When you go to the store and see caramel ice cream sauce topping on the shelf, that could be ours,” he said.
Christen said these larger food processors cannot replicate the exacting methods required to make real caramel. Specifically, they are processing food in such large amounts and in vast vats, they cannot get the temperature to stay above 300 degrees, essential to burning the sugar, the only ingredient in caramel besides water, said Christen Kugener.
To ensure the proper temperatures are reached, and things are done to the highest standards, the couple imported stoves from France, and a “cut and wrap” machine from Germany that converts a “rope” of caramel into small wrapped candies they call “chews.”
The Kugeners met while they were both working for a major bank, Fortis, in Luxembourg, but when the financial crisis of 2007-08 hit, their lives, along with most of the rest of the planet, were turned upside down. They quit their jobs, and embarked on a new journey that brought them to the United States.
Through Christen’s father, a doctor, they met a man who had recently retired as one of the biggest and most reputable caramel makers in France. Daniel Palix was seeking to impart his expertise and recipes to someone younger who could carry on his craft, and the couple was eager for a change, Vincent said.
“The next year we spent traveling in France, visiting all these caramel shops and learning all about making caramel,” he said.
Once educated, the Kugeners immigrated here because Christen’s mother, Susan Bernabe, grew up in Lemon Grove, and it is where Christen spent her summers when she was a young child. She said her mom married a French exchange student who she met at Mount Miguel High School. Bernabe painted a mural that now hangs in the business, as well as creating all the graphic art for labels and other material.
Despite the U.S. connections, Christen said it was not easy getting the new business going. This was their first venture, and they had no network. Finding customers was hard because “most people don’t even want to listen to you at first,” she said.
“Everything was new, but we managed to find some great people who surrounded us early on (including Dick Buxton from Specialty Metals, who sublet his space),” she said.
As the business gained traction, the owners have given back to their community by working with two nonprofit organizations. Through Partnerships with Industry, they have hired three employees with disabilities. They also donated a percentage of one product’s sales to the Autism Tree Project Foundation, which provides early screening of children to check for autism.
Things are definitely on the upswing for Le Caramel. More food companies are abandoning artificial caramel flavoring and shifting to using naturally made caramel in their products, he said. There is a growing trend in companies doing private label candies and syrups that is right up their alley, he added.
And the new boutique store is certain to help boost the popularity of traditional French caramel made right here in East County.
“We want to be keep making good caramel at an affordable price,” Christen Kugener said. “We really are proud of our product and want everyone to be able to enjoy it.”