Jill Esau started making toffee when she and her family moved to Redmond about 20 years ago.
Someone had given her a cookbook at a holiday party and while flipping through the book on the drive home, she found a toffee recipe with only a few ingredients and thought it seemed doable. So, she made a batch and gave it away to family and friends for Christmas. The toffee was a hit and more and more people asked for it each year.
Despite the toffee’s popularity, Esau never thought anything would come from it.
But what started out as a homemade Christmas present has now grown into a business. Early last week, Esau opened a retail store for Jill’s Olde World English Toffee in the old Brown Bag Cafe building at 8412 164th Ave. N.E. in Redmond. And although she has only been open for a short time, Esau has been well received.
“We almost totally sold out on Sunday (Dec. 12),” she said. “It was remarkable.”
Selling toffee was never in Esau’s plans, but after burning out on a career in the nonprofit sector, she needed to find another passion.
“I just really felt like I’d been put on the shelf,” she said. “(Working in nonprofit) was my dream job.”
After almost two years of going to the doctor every week for an iron deficiency that kept her in bed for a lot of the day, Esau became very involved as a parent volunteer at her son’s school. But when he graduated in the spring of 2009, Esau found herself at loose ends once again. As she tried figuring out what her next step would be, she told herself, “Do what you know, just make a batch of toffee.”
Esau took that batch to a local Tully’s Coffee store and the employees encouraged her to contact the corporate office to discuss selling her toffee in the company’s stores. She was in negotiations with Tully’s when a new chief executive officer took over the company and things were put on hold. This delay, however, did not discourage Esau. She visited Whole Foods in Bellevue with samples and the management at the store loved the toffee and in about four months, her product was on the shelves of five of the company’s local stores.
After this, things took off for Esau. Jill’s Olde World English Toffee was in a number of local Top Foods stores and after her mother suggested it, Esau’s sweets were being sold at a number of retailers in Whistler, B.C. during the 2010 Winter Olympics. She said they did very well in Canada and the stores she worked with wanted her back this holiday season, but all the fees and taxes it cost to deliver up north are too expensive for her at the moment.
“Maybe if I grow a little more, I’ll go visit them again,” Esau said.
Esau also had booths at the Issaquah and Sammamish farmers markets over the summer and was eventually approached by City of Redmond officials to open a retail store in town, which wasn’t even on her radar and took her by surprise.
James Roberts, deputy planning director for the city, said Esau had already applied for a business license and was approved with the assumption that retail sales was included in her business. But Esau was only planning on making the toffee in the building, not selling it. So, Roberts said they encouraged her to open a retail store in the location as well.
“We’re very excited to have her open,” he said. “I think it will be a great addition to our downtown.”
With all the long hours she has been putting in, Esau is pretty exhausted at the end of each day, but she admits she has been having so much fun.
“People who love candy are just the nicest people. They’re so sweet,” she said. “How can you not be nice with all that sugar?”
She receives support from friends and family, but Jill’s Olde World English Toffee is very much a one-woman show: Esau does everything from making the toffee to selling it. All of her expenses are paid for by her family’s savings account and she only makes purchases she knows she will be able to pay back within a month. Because of this, Esau’s business hasn’t been able to grow and expand as much as she would like. Despite the slow progress, Esau said she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, especially since she’s found something she loves as much as working in nonprofits.
“It’s so worth it because when you create something out of nothing, it means so much more,” she said. “It’s been like a second dream come true.”