(The Vande Walle's from l. to r.) Don Jr., Norma, Steve and Tom inside the Vande Walle's Candies retail store located in Appleton, Wis.

Don Jr. loading a large log of caramel into the A.M.P. Rose machine to be sized and wrapped.

Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to work with family, the Vande Walle brothers entered the industry with high hopes by joining their parents’ candy factory located in Appleton, Wis. Family- owned and -operated, Vande Walle’s Candies Inc. has built up its name by offering a selection of quality sweets, the most popular being their wrapped caramels. And who better to ensure the deliciousness of the caramels than Rachael Ray?
Recently, Vande Walle’s Candies appeared in an article in the New York Times about candy shops in Wisconsin. The article mentioned Vande Walle’s wrapped caramels, which caught the eye of none other than cooking show host Rachael Ray. A cast member called the Vande Walle brothers right away to get a sample of the caramels. Once Rachael tried them, she had to have them for the show. Vande Walle’s supplied the entire studio audience with samples, and the wrapped caramels became the Snack of the Day.
But long before Vande Walle’s caramels appeared on TV, they were being handmade. The company started making candy in 1975 in Shawano, Wis., where most of the products were handmade. Don Vande Walle Sr. started the company with his wife Norma in 1974, but originally they owned a bakery. Don knew very little about baking at first, but thought it was interesting. Don and Norma had five boys, three of which currently work at the Appleton factory: Don Jr., Steve and Tom. At some point, the boys decided it would be fun to make candy and by 1975, the family had begun making its first candy product: popcorn balls. Today the treat is made the same way but on a larger scale - a batch of caramel then made about 30 handmade popcorn balls, while a batch today makes about 125.
As the company tried to increase its production of candy, space began to fill up.
“In Shawano, we were growing and growing and building the line, and it got to the point where we were making candy on the weekends and Sunday night the bakers started at 8 o’clock at night and baked all night long and another shift baked all day,” says Steve, co-owner of Vande Walle’s Candies. The bakers and candy makers were sharing the same manufacturing space. Eventually, the company would have to move into a larger building, so they had a decision to make: move to a larger building in Shawano or change locations to Appleton at the Fox River Mall. “Back then 10,000 cars a day went to the mall. Now it’s up to about 70,000,” Steve says. So the family chose a location by the mall, bought the land, built the building and moved in.
It’s now been more than 20 years that the family has been at the new location. They still produce bakery products, but mostly candy. The new factory is 15,000-sq.-ft with a retail store accounting for 1,500-sq.-ft. Vande Walle’s Candies also has a 26,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, located about three miles from the factory in Appleton.
The whole Vande Walle family used to be stockholders for the privately owned operation, but a new location presented an opportunity for the three brothers to step in and run the factory. Don Jr., Steve and Tom are currently co-owners of the business with divided responsibilities. Don works with candy manufacturing; Steve is in charge of sales, which includes retail and wholesale accounts; and Tom runs the baking operation, shipping and receiving and research and development.
The factory also employs 40 people who work in the retail store, bakery and candy-making section.
“I think our employees have made us successful,” says Don Jr., co-owner of Vande Walle’s Candies. “We have a very good group of people so we can’t give them enough credit.” In fact, most of the employees have worked for the Vande Walle’s for quite some time.
“We have several people that have worked here more than 10 years,” Steve adds. “We try to keep a fun and friendly, family atmosphere.” On average, workers stay with Vande Walle’s for around 7-15 years.
Vande Walle’s most popular candies are its Heavenly Angelfood Candy and its wrapped caramels. The angelfood candy is typically sold during the winter months when there is minimum humidity. The candy features an angelfood center enrobed in milk or dark chocolate. The center is so light and airy that it melts before the chocolate does, the company notes.
Sold year-round, Vande Walle’s wrapped caramels are consistently a best seller. Unlike other caramels, these are soft and chewy, which produces a great texture and flavor without sticking in teeth and pulling out dental work.
“At the rate we’re going, we’ll sell about 100,000 pounds this year of wrapped caramels,” says Tom, co-owner of Vande Walle’s Candies. And because of the caramels’ recent publicity, that number may rise. Even though the caramels are in high demand, they are still made in small batches and cooked in copper bowls to get the right flavor. The process of creating the caramels has changed a lot since the early days. When the family started making wrapped caramels, they bought boxes of wax paper from the grocery store, cut the caramels into squares and wrapped them by hand. Today, the process has become more automated.
Seventy-five pounds of caramel are cooked at 236 degrees in a Savage Firemixer copper kettle. The dual-action mixer keeps the caramel at a stable temperature. Throughout the cooking process, milk is added, which lowers the temperature; then the caramel cooks back up and more milk is added. Scrap caramel is a necessary ingredient in order to keep the caramel consistent; five pounds is added to every batch. Once this cycle is finished, the gas is turned off and vanilla is added. Then a Savage bowl lifter pours the caramel into troughs covered with paper where it cools. Once the caramel is ready, the paper is peeled off and the large caramel log is placed into Vande Walle’s new wrapping machine, an A.M.P. Rose 750.
The machine sizes the caramel, then cuts and wraps 500 pieces per minute, although it can produce up to 650 pieces per minute. Once the pieces are wrapped, they are conveyed upstairs to be inspected for imperfections. The pieces that are wrapped incorrectly are set aside as “scrap” caramel and added back into the caramel cooking process. The wrapped caramels are then bagged, boxed, labeled and sent out.
Before the company purchased the A.M.P. Rose machine, a semi-automatic wrapping machine was used.
“We went from having one person wrap caramels all day long to having this machine that could wrap 90-95 a minute,” Tom says.
The brothers plan to upgrade another machine in the caramel process as well. Within the next year, the caramel corn bagging machine will be replaced with a new bagging machine for wrapped caramels, which will change the current bagging process from manual to automated.
“[The bagging machine] will include the metal detector, the scale and the bagger. By doing that, besides being able to automate it and being able to do it quicker, it’ll also be sealing the caramels into a bag instead of putting a twist tie on a plastic bag. You can seal out the elements and increase your shelf life on your product; protect the product longer,” Steve says.
The company has created some organic caramel that is not certified yet, and plans to make sea salt caramels within the next year.
But the Vande Walle’s have more than a few popular products. The company also offers pecan caramel logs, chocolate-covered potato chips, chocolate flowerpots, truffles, fudge, meltaways and a variety of other candies.
The pecan caramel logs have a thick caramel center dipped in soft, chewy caramel and rolled in pecan halves. Slices of this candy are sometimes added to chocolate flowerpots. The flowerpots can also include cashews and nut clusters. An interesting candy combination that keeps customers coming back is Vande Walle’s chocolate-covered potato chips, according to the Vande Walle brothers.
“A lot of people eat chocolate-covered pretzels because they like the salty-sweet combination,” Steve says. When people hear about chocolate-covered potato chips they usually assume it will be a bad combination, but once they try one they’ll be converted, he says. A specific brand of potato chips works best. These chips are hand-dipped in milk chocolate and come in 5-oz. boxes or 1-lb. bags.
The company also makes candy bars for fundraising groups. Organizations ordering a large amount of candy bars can have custom wrappers created. The same grade of chocolate is used for fundraising candy bars as Vande Walle’s regular candy bars.
And Vande Walle’s hasn’t forgotten about the health-conscious consumer. The company produces a line of sugar-free candies such as sugar-free peanut brittle, wrapped caramels, chocolate and caramel corn.
“People all over the country love our sugar-free peanut brittle. They say it’s the best they’ve ever had, so we ship a lot of that out,” Steve says.
Besides the bakery and candy manufacturing, the company also makes its own ice cream.
“We didn’t know how much candy people would buy during the summer, so we thought if we had ice cream, people would keep coming in for the summer months,” Steve says. To learn how to make the ice cream, one of the brothers attended an ice cream school. The brothers also visited other ice cream businesses to see what worked best for other companies. To determine what flavors the company would create, the family turned to personal preference. Ice cream turned out to be a great idea for the summer months, and they have the awards to prove it.
In addition to dozens of trophies for cake decorating, Vande Walle’s has won many Seal of Excellence awards at Wisconsin’s state fair. Over 10 years, the company has won 34 awards mostly for candy, but also for bakery products and ice cream. In order to win the Seal of Excellence, samples had to be provided to 400 “everyday people” who would then answer a questionnaire. If four out of five people rated the product “very good” or “excellent,” the product could win the award. Once all the products were rated, the company would receive statistics about how the product could be improved. Several times, the Vande Walles thought about changing a product, so they would send it to the fair. The results of the questionnaires would determine whether or not the product would be changed.
“The year we sent our wrapped caramels [to the fair], 93% of people rated them as very good or excellent, which we thought was great,” Steve says.
To see these award-winning caramels being made, all one has to do is take a trip to Vande Walle’s Candies in Appleton. The company offers self-guided tours or appointments can be made with the tour director.
When the company began, it manufactured mostly bakery products with a small amount of candy. Today, the company has expanded as a candy business that is 60% wholesale and 40% retail and growing in every way. With caramel sales on the rise, the Vande Walle brothers expect production to double within the next five years.
“We’re always working on something different,” Steve says. “It’s exciting to come to work every day knowing that things are happening, the business is growing, and it’s fun making candy.”