Andrew Chmielewski and his father Dave, of Dave's Sweet Tooth Toffee, show their racks of Peanut Butter Crunch toffee at their Harrison Township warehouse.
Dave Chmielewski would make toffee for fellow Detroit firefighters. It’s now spread like fire across the world
Harrison Township — As a Detroit firefighter, Dave Chmielewski loved cooking for the guys stationed at Engine 60. He especially loved baking banana bread, cookies, pies — anything a sweet tooth would enjoy.
At a picnic one day, he tried a piece of toffee made by a woman who’d send it to a friend’s engine house during the holidays.
“I really liked it, so I said, ‘Can I get the recipe from you?’ ” recalled Chmielewski, 68.
He tested the recipe using a small pot in his Clinton Township kitchen and tweaked a few things after watching Rachael Ray make toffee on her show.
“Everybody really seemed to like it,” said his son, Andrew Chmielewski, 29. “From there, he’d put it in Mason jars and make it for guys at the engine house, for friends, family.”
Soon, fans started calling his house with requests for jars. It became too expensive to give away, so Dave charged for orders.
Andrew was studying business administration and marketing at Oakland University at the time and would join his dad at craft shows to sell the toffee. Andrew never expected to become the Willy Wonka of Macomb County, but seeing the demand, he quit school in pursuit of sweet success.
“I decided that we should start a candy company,” he said.
He named the company Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee in honor of his dad. Ten years later, the toffee is no longer produced in their kitchen, but in a 5,000-square-foot factory in Harrison Township.
The bestselling dark and milk chocolate and unique flavors — coffee, peanut butter and dark chocolate cherry — can be found in Kroger stores in Michigan, as well as Whole Foods and local grocers, including Plum Market and Nino Salvaggio. Bed Bath & Beyond also recently started carrying the toffee in Michigan and Illinois.
Andrew estimates the $5.99 pouches, which resemble Mason jars, are in 5,000 stores — and some unlikely locations — nationwide thanks to distributors.
“I’ve stopped to get gas somewhere, and there’s our toffee at the gas station. Or stopped at a little market, and there it is on the shelf next to the register,” he said. “It’s always fun to just stumble across it.”
Sitting in an office outside the production space, where the toffee has been made and packaged by hand since 2014, the Chmielewskis explain they’re gearing up for their busy season.
“We do about 35-40 percent of our business for the entire year from about Nov. 1 to Christmas. We have grown so much over the last four to six months that I’m worried we’re going to be too busy for the holidays,” said Andrew, adding the staff of 16 will expand to 24 to fill orders anyone can place online.
In mid-September, the company started shipping toffee to China — a result of Andrew attending Alibaba’s 2017 Gateway conference in Detroit, where he met suppliers and Martha Stewart. (A photo of the two sits on his desk.) They’re also about to ship to Japan and Canada, as soon as they finish the dual-language English and French Canadian labels.
While Andrew credits his dad for the recipe, Dave credits his son for doing “all the work.” This year, Andrew was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 food and drink honoree. This month, he took the title of America’s Best Young Chef at a Forbes competition in Boston featuring nine chefs and chocolatiers, including Detroit’s Bon Bon Bon founder Alex Clark.
Clark, 29, gives her chocolatier stamp of approval to Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee.
“It’s really good homemade toffee. I think they’re successful because of the quality and the consistency of their product,” she said, adding they come from “humble beginnings” and “aren’t afraid of being who they are.”
Andrew, who lives in Ferndale, said the sweets category win was “unexpected and awesome.”
Yet out in public, it’s his dad who gets the recognition.
“I was in the deli the other day getting lunch meat, and I had this shirt on,” Dave said, pointing to his red polo embroidered with their Mason jar logo, “and the guy goes, ‘I love that stuff! Are you Dave?’ ”
“I go, ‘Yeah, I’m Dave,’ ” he said, throwing up his hands, guilty.
Dave retired in 2006 after serving 35 years as a firefighter.
Now, he plays golf with fellow retired firemen, and brainstorms toffee flavors, such as the special edition pumpkin spice, peppermint and cranberry pecan for this season. He’s experimenting with a coconut-pretzel flavor, but says that probably won’t make it to shelves since the facility is gluten-free.
A batch (roughly 20 pounds of toffee) can be made in about 20 minutes at the factory. It then sits in a freezer overnight and gets broken in pieces the next day.
Unlike hard, brittle toffee that grandparents love, Andrew said, it’s a new take on the “classic, old-timey candy.”
“It’s softer; it doesn’t stick in your teeth,” he explained. “It still has the snap like English toffee, but it’s not so brittle, and it’s not like a chore to eat.”
Bargoer guinea pigs
During his 31-year career, John Gusumano drove around Detroit, putting out fires with Dave.
When Gusumano retired, he went into the bar business and let Dave use his patrons as guinea pigs.
“You leave (toffee) on the bar and people will eat it, that’s for sure,” said Gusumano, 73, who owns the Engine House in Mount Clemens.
“He’d come up with a different flavor, and they’d try that, and we’d all vote on it,” Gusumano said, adding “everybody that tries it loves it.”
When Andrew brought the toffee to Vince and Joe’s Gourmet Market, general manager Vinni Sciarrino said his customers loved it, too.
The Clinton Township market was the first store to sell the toffee five years ago, and it’s still prominently displayed near the registers.
The coffee toffee is Sciarrino’s favorite — “I’m a coffee freak, so anything coffee, I gotta taste,” he said.
Tucked in the back of the kitchen, the Chmielewskis still have the pot Dave used to make his first batch.
The inside now scorched by caramelized butter and sugar, they still use it to make small test batches. But it also serves as a reminder of how far they’ve come from the days it took Dave eight hours to make 24 jars, using a Ninja blender to mix ingredients from Meijer.
“We do it pretty much the same way that he used to,” Andrew said. “Just on a larger scale.”
Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee