Maura McKnight, of The Candy Drawer Confectionary might just be the master of reinventing herself, but with serious longevity. Not a fly-by-night decision maker, Maura has made three important shifts in her life and has stuck with each of her changes and decisions for the long haul. In the 1990’s Maura started her first small business as a Birth and Postpartum doula. For those that don’t know, a doula (pronounced doola) is a woman who is trained to assist in childbirth and the time directly after birth. She worked this very personally satisfying business for almost 18 years. A grueling lifestyle of working nights takes a toll, so Maura decided it was time to retire. It was during this new phase in retirement that Maura shares, “The bottom fell out of my life. I put myself in rehab. I came out of that feeling like the beginnings of a new person.” Thus ending her second reinvention and primed for her third; The Candy Drawer Confectionary.
The Candy Drawer Confectionary is a woman owned, family run, small business producing higher end, artisan-type chocolate bon bons, caramels, baked goods, and special order confections. Says Maura, “If someone doesn’t see what they want on our website, most of the time we can make whatever it is. We’re pretty specialized to the chocolate and caramel products, but we can do lots of other things.”
A self taught confectioner, Maura runs The Candy Drawer’s production alone. She jokes that she is clearly The Boss, but she does receive assistance from her daughters in the form of graphic design, branding, packaging and shipping, and taste testing (or what they like to call quality assurance!). She will also hire additional assistants when she gets really busy, but the day-to-day “making” is currently a one woman show.
The concept of Candy Drawer Confectionary started Thanksgiving of 2011. Says Maura, “My daughters and I had set out this beautiful dessert table; pies, cookies, all kinds of beautiful desserts for our family, and that winter we made barks and brittles and chocolate covered goodies, that we sent for Christmas presents for our friends and family. The feedback from that was, ‘You guys ought to sell this stuff.’ We were all jazzed and thought, maybe we could make some money doing this.” In 2012 they made their homemade Weebly website (which they upgraded in 2013) and The Candy Drawer Confectionary was born. (Good thing they had a doula on staff! Lol – I had to.)
In the early years Maura would basically just make goodies that she liked to eat. Her first self-imposed challenge with her new business was to replicate her favorite See’s Candy bon bon. That achievement took her a few months, but she adds, “When I accomplished that, I knew I had this.” Using friends and family as guinea pigs for new recipes, she rarely received negative feedback. But it’s been the company’s latest focus to start really paying more attention to the production of their bon bons. The goal was to elevate them to something besides a chocolate covered “something”. Says Maura, “It’s just my years of eating what I like, my heritage, and because I’ve been cooking since I was a kid, that I know what stuff goes together. If it sounds good and it goes with chocolate, it goes in a bon bon!”
Maura is a true lover of every aspect of confectionery and enjoys standing up to a good challenge. Often tasked with commission work for special orders for corporate events or weddings, Maura delights in the research and experimentation. One thing is guaranteed in her process; she will never turn out a product that she doesn’t personally love. Whether it’s replicating her beloved See’s Candy, to creating a custom matcha chocolate block for a wedding favor, to developing a vegan caramel, she gets excited about the detective work and analysis to make a perfect confection for her clients and revels in each accomplishment of making their dream come to fruition. Often times, these new creations become standards on her online menu.
The Candy Drawer has even been commissioned by other businesses to make confections to be sold in their establishments. Want to try an authentic English or Scottish fudge on this side of the pond? Visit Maura’s friends at The Pure Pasty Co. in Vienna, Va. She worked through several iterations to land on the perfect recipe. The owner and chef of Pure Pasty were able to give their seal of approval and they now sell Maura’s fudge to their patrons at a fraction of cost of imported treats.
Candy Drawer is also trying out a new chocolate supplier, River-Sea Chocolates. Their chocolate would be used to produce a higher end line of bon bons. The chocolate made by this small company based in Sterling, VA, is expensive, but it’s made with exceptional ingredients and the company is conscientious of the process of growing, harvesting, and processing the cacao. Be on the look out for that new confection offering. (Come back to jenniferthebeholder.com in early July to learn more about River-Sea Chocolates.)
Ramping up during this time of year, The Candy Drawer is busy with their wedding favors business. You can see some of their confections featured in the 2018 Winter/Spring issue of Washingtonian Bride and Groom Magazine. But their current business objective is to increase the number of wholesale contracts that they have and to develop new products. The long-term goal is to make their brand so well known that they will be able to sell the business. Maura explains, “When I first started this, I went to a class about how to grow your business and learned, if you’re going to start your business, you have to go in with the idea that you’re going to sell it. It’s like a child. It’s yours for a while, but then when it grows up it’s not yours any more. It is it’s own.” She adds, “The business has been growing organically, without ‘performance enhancing pesticides or fertilizers.’ It grows at its own speed and so far I can keep up with it. On occasion I need a couple of assistants, but the business is doing what it wants to do. I believe that businesses are like people. They are living organisms. They have to be allowed to grow at their own rate.”
The Candy Drawer Confectionary is everything Maura thought it would be and more. She shares, “The breadth of product and the quality that we’ve developed, the people I’ve met, the new friends I have, the amazing fan club, and my cheerleaders, are happy surprises.” She goes on, “Late last year, I was wondering maybe I don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe it’s not going anywhere.” It was her daughter in charge of graphic design and branding who suggested that Candy Drawer needed to “grow up”. Last summer they invested some money to rebrand and put more time into their marketing strategy and just gave the business a push. Adds Maura, “It’s like sending your kid off to kindergarten. You gotta grow up now. And that’s what happened. Everything got reenergized. That’s when the new bon bons were introduced and we decided to pare down the product offering on our website. It worked.” Admittedly it was a scary leap, but one that paid off indeed.
When Maura arrived for our interview, she brought with her a goodie bag of her treats for me. (Ok. I secretly prayed for this. Just sayin’). Mind you, I had purchased a box of her beautiful bon bons at Roots 657 (Blog post dated March 23, 2018) as a gift for my husband for Valentine’s Day, which is how I discovered The Candy Drawer Confectionary. Within the bag were more of the same bon bons I had bought, caramels, some chocolate covered pretzels decked in St. Patrick’s Day accouterments and….it’s hard for me to talk about these without weeping a little….chocolate covered roasted sugar marshmallows. Absolutely. To. Die. For. Everything was exceptionally delicious, but my hands down fav were those marshmallows. I’m convinced these are what angels snack on when they need a sweet fix.
When you visit Maura’s website, you will find on her menu of sweets, treats affectionately called “Hoss” Caramels. When Maura was in the treatment rehab center she met a person who she refers to as “Hoss”. Says Maura, “You get really close to people really fast there. Hoss was this baby soul. His soul just hadn’t caught up with this grownup person and he was struggling in his life. I would send him my caramels and he would send me homemade jerky. This went on for a couple of years until he lost his battle with addiction. Because he loved our caramels so much, we branded them “Hoss Caramels”.” Each year, Maura donates 10% of the gross profits on all of their “Hoss Caramel” sales to the relapse department of the rehabilitation center where Hoss was also a patient.
Maura would consider her greatest personal achievement to date to be her long term recovery. She shares, “Recovery is the number one thing because that guides my life. Without that, I’m nothing.” A close second as a proud moment is being self employed for over 20 years and her ability to consistently land on her feet.
More than anything, Maura would like you to know that anyone can do what she does if they want to. She encourages people to reach out for help and take classes that are available. She says, “Tap in to people who are already working the business because there is always room for one more of me. If I can help somebody else I will do it. Don’t limit yourself to what you think you can do and get a mentor from the *SCORE Association.” She adds, “Put your best foot forward because you never know who’s going to notice you. Dream big, and don’t judge yourself or limit yourself by your dreams. You might go this direction, like we did, and it will be better, or you might go that direction and make a mistake; again the same as we did. Don’t doubt yourself, just do it. Reach out and ask for help because there are people who will help.”
*SCORE Association is a 501 nonprofit that provides free business mentoring services to prospective and established small business owners in the US.