Lake Norman & Mooresville

2nd career proves sweet success for entrepreneur

It's been said that when a door closes in life, a window may open. For Terrill resident Daphne Wagner, the closing door was the slowdown in her career as a real estate broker, selling homes built by her husband, Gra, under the business name GP Kon.

The window she opened led to a growing business making toffee candy and cookies, under the name Mrs. W's Old Time Candy.

"I decided that making candy offered a better future in a down economy than selling homes," said Wagner. "Even in a bad economy, folks still want their comfort food, maybe even more so."

Wagner, 45, had been making chocolate almond toffee candy as a Christmas treat for family and friends using a recipe handed down from her husband's great-grandmother, remembered only as Mrs. W, four generations ago. "It's a difficult recipe to make, involving a great deal of stirring, all of which I do by hand," she said. "You have to know exactly when to take the toffee off the burner or it'll have a burned taste or the consistency won't be right."

Like baby bear's oatmeal in the Goldilocks story, Wagner wants her toffee to be just-so. "I know by the look of it when to take it off. I've been making it for 20 years, so I've got it down to a science."

The recipe for the toffee, as well as the cooking process, remains a closely guarded family secret. "Our toffee has a bold, rich flavor and we use Ghiradelli chocolate exclusively."

With her candy business expanding, Wagner added several varieties of toffee cookies to the mix of products she prepares and delivers herself, including oatmeal, chocolate chip, peanut butter and chocolate almond. She developed the recipes for all her cookies.

"I'm a good cook. I enjoy concocting new recipes, but I also enjoy the sales part of the business because I like to be out meeting and talking with people."

She spends 16 hours over a two-day period every week cooking, while the other three days are spent in sales and distribution. After just a few years, production and distribution have expanded greatly. "We make anywhere from 200 to 500 pounds of candy and cookies a week, using several hundred pounds of butter and sugar.

"I'm essentially a one-woman operation. I have one part-time employee who helps with the packaging, and my husband occasionally helps out, but I do all my own cooking," Wagner said. "I'm not ready to relinquish my cooking duties. I like the quality control, to make sure it's done right."

Although she began the business in her home kitchen, she soon realized that in order to continue, she would have to have her kitchen certified as commercial. N.C. Department of Agriculture regulations, however, do not allow certification of a home kitchen if there is a dog in the house, which was the case in the Wagner household.

"I have a dog, my Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dusty, and there was no way I was going to let him go," she said. "My husband, Gra, said, 'So we're forking out money for a new kitchen instead of getting rid of the dog?' And I said, 'Yeah. What other solution would there be?' "

The new kitchen is in the home that had served as the office for GP Kon Builders.

Local vendors for Mrs. W's Old Time Candy include several popular locations, such as Stacy's Restaurant in Denver, Terrill Country Store, Big Daddy's Seafood, and the BP gas station on N.C. 16 in Denver. Other outlets include Discovery Place in Charlotte, as well as the gift shops in hospitals in Asheville and Charlotte.

"I've been told that the children at Levine Children's Hospital love our Gourmet Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies," Wagner is happy to point out.

Although 50 percent of sales are through her website - www.mrsws.com - Wagner makes all other deliveries herself. "We make it and package it, then hop in our truck with our coolers and deliver it fresh, from Asheville to Spartanburg. We're on the menu at Mellow Mushroom Pizza in Asheville because the owner loved our toffee so much."

Online sales have gone to customers throughout the U.S. and Canada, and Wagner hopes to have her products sold through the Williams-Sonoma catalog as well.

With business booming, Wagner must deal with the demands of being a successful entrepreneur as well as a wife and mother. "I've got 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and a 15-year-old daughter, so I have to strike a balance between my candy business and my family."

Wagner has been surprised by the success: "I never thought it would take off the way it has, but I had time on my hands, so I became the candy lady. It's a happier business than selling houses. I sell happiness and comfort now. In five years, who knows where I could be?"

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