Le Caramel makes crème de la crème confections
All the recent rain and cold nights give people a sweet tooth. While chocolate is a must-have, caramel is a close second for its creamy, rich tones bringing back childhood memories. Le Caramel in El Cajon satisfies that craving with their creation of candies, sauces and other products.
Vincent and Christen Kugener are at the helm of Le Caramel, which maintains the tradition of caramel making from the South of France.
Before the Kugeners moved to the U.S., they worked in the finance industry in Luxembourg, saving money to pursue their dream of making caramels. It all started with the chance encounter of someone who walked into the office of her father, who was a doctor.
The patient was the number one caramel maker in France who had just retired.
“He wanted to hand out his recipes to young people to keep his caramel going. Vincent met him and they hit it off,” said Christen Kugener.
For a year the Kugeners toured France and learned how to make the caramel. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the Kugeners decided to move to the U.S. They imported the caramel-making machines from France and set up shop in Santee five years ago.
“Last year Le Caramel made 500,000 pounds of caramel. We decided we really needed to move because we were literally bursting at the seams,” Christen Kugener said.
Now they are thrilled with their new site in El Cajon, which is five times bigger than the former place in Santee.
“It is clean and new, has washable floors and walls, and all of the dish-washing facilities we need,” said Christen Kugener.
In the front lobby of Le Caramel is a large mural, painted by Christen’s mother, of a man knee-high in water, raking salt from the Salins de Giraud in the South of France.
“This is how the people got salt from the sea for caramel-making in the South of France,” said Vincent Kugener.
“It was brutal, hard work, very demanding. Now they have machines to do the bulk of the work. But you will still find men in the water raking up the top layer of the salt,” he said.
Sea salt caramel has been a centuries-old tradition in French confections.
“Sea salt adds the depth of flavor to caramel,” he said.
Until just a few years ago, the general public in the United States was not even familiar with Sea Salt Caramel. Then Starbucks put it on their menu of coffee drinks.
“Starbucks revolutionized coffee for people 15 or 20 years ago. They did the same for Sea Salt Caramel. And now people love it,” he said.
What makes Le Caramel stand out from other caramel confectioners, the Kugeners say, is the basic ingredients: sugar, butter and cream.
“Caramel is basically burnt sugar. You cook the sugar until it caramelizes. There is no need to go fancy to get a good caramel,” he said.
Christen walked over to chat with Chris Gaede who was standing over a large kettle of sugar, butter and cream. He waited for the mixture to reach just the right temperature to start vigorously stirring it.
“The longer you cook it, the stronger the taste,” he said.
In the next room was Gaede, guiding a rope of newly made caramel through a machine with wheels and swivels. He then moved the rope of caramel to another machine that sliced and wrapped the candy.
Employee Garrett Michaud picked up the tray of wrapped caramels. He worked with Tina Tasle and Alyssa Andreorio.
“We have to make sure the wrappers are tight enough on the caramel, giving an extra twist at the end if necessary. And if the caramels have any dents or imperfections, we throw them out,” Michaud said.
“Or eat them,” Tasle said, grinning.
“Our products are tried and true. We don’t play with chemicals and sugar is our number one ingredient,” Christen Kugener said.
Because both Christen and Vincent Kugener grew up in France, caramel has always tasted the way they prepare it at Le Carmel.
“We never had flavored corn syrup that passes as caramel,” Christen Kugener explained.
A typical day at Le Caramel for the 10 employees involves cooking and packaging. Christen Kugener is in charge of marketing, sales and personnel while Vincent oversees quality and production.
The Kugeners have collaborated with Partnerships with Industry. The organization provided Le Caramel with a team of three adults with disabilities who do the packaging of the products as well as the janitorial of the factory.
“We couldn’t do what we need to without them,” she said.
Le Caramel has also developed a caramel line benefitting Autism Tree Project Foundation, committed to screening as many kids as possible for autism syndrome so that children can access early intervention.
The Kugeners have developed new flavors and products, including chocolate cream and a pumpkin caramel cream. Their newest product to be tested is a caramel sauce to be pumped into gourmet coffee drinks. In early January, the Kugeners will attend a Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
“Our booth will be right next to a guy who has a coffee product. We will probably be doing business with him,” Christen Kugener said.
To shop online, go to www.le-caramel.com.