Betty Royce grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri and moved to Southern California as a young adult. She soon married and became Betty Burns. One day, in her home in Newport Beach, while babysitting her grandchildren, Stephanie and Jeffrey, Betty fondly reminisced about helping her mother make English toffee. The flashback spurred a futile search for her mother's recipe. After many failed cooking trials, Betty concocted her own secret formula for the treat, what came to be known as "The Toffee Recipe."
Betty shared the fruits of her success with family and friends each holiday, but closely guarded the recipe details for 20 years. It wasn't until 1993, the year before she died, that she taught her daughter Kathy how to make the sweets.
Stephanie, Kathy's niece, had grown fond of the chocolate toffee as a child spending summers at "Grammer" Betty's. To keep the legacy alive, Kathy later taught Stephanie the specific and time-consuming secrets to the toffee creation.
In 2002, four generations since Jane made English toffee with her daughter, great-granddaughter Stephanie Rush launches Rushburn Toffee Company as an online retailer. "The Toffee Recipe" will not be lost to the ages. Once a delicacy shared with family and friends during the holiday season, it is now available all year-round as a boutique confectionery dedicated to capturing the taste buds of chocolate lovers around the world.
October 29, 2008, Rushburn Toffee landed two "Silver Medals" at the Second Annual Los Angeles Chocolate Salon. One for "New Product Award" and another for "Best Toffee in Salon." This was the first time the confectioners have participated in any competition.
I learned about the family-inspired company from a pleasant email I received regarding a previous article I wrote called "Weighing in on chocolate" – which also spawned weight-loss spam. One bore the subject line "The reason you are fat!"
The more welcome message read: "Good morning, Diana. David Politis here, a 25-year PR vet – SanFran native too."
"Ninety-nine percent of the time I specialize in high-tech PR, but as a favor to a friend, I'm helping out a small, S.F.-based confectionery called Rushburn Toffee."
"Given your self-confessed love for chocolate in today's article/column "Weighing in on chocolate," it seems to me that you, Rushburn Toffee and founder Stephanie Rush might be a match made in chocolate heaven..."
"Here's my thinking: Given how messed up the world is right now, I think we could all use a feel good story like Stephanie's and Rushburn Toffee. And besides, chocolate makes almost everyone feel good, right?" David clinched my attention with an offer of samples.
Sure David's marketing skills glow in the dark, and yes, I was beguiled. I replied, "Oh, your message has put a smile in my heart and tickle in my belly! How synchronistic that you would read the article so soon, it wasn't yet posted when I logged off last night. Also, good fortune that Rushburn is San Francisco based!"
I recommended to David that we convene a focus group of chocolate enthusiasts to get true representation. In the spirit of better science I would have banded a control group but I didn't know where to find six people who dislike chocolate.
In researching something at some other time I came across an interesting tidbit about focus groups. According to Wikipedia, Ernest Dichter, psychologist and marketing expert, considered to be "the father of motivational research," originated the idea of focus groups. Focus groups assemble for qualitative research in which participants give their opinions "towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging." Participants are free to talk with other group members, ask questions, and in our case salivate in anticipation.
For the next two weeks I plotted the pseudo-scientific study and exchanged email with Politis Communications through David, who added Maddie Miner, and Lindsay Thomson from his staff to the cc. Still no word from the company founder, Stephanie Rush. What? I wondered. In my next message I asked, "Stephanie, is this something you want to do? I just thought it would be a fun way of hearing your story, learning about the toffee and getting more than my input about the treats."
Lindsay replied, "Thanks for the time frame and location, Diana! This focus group gathering is a really great idea and a wonderful way for you to not only get to know the great toffee that Stephanie produces, but also to learn the story and get a real feel for the warmth behind this company."
"Stephanie, does this time and place work for you?" She added.
Still nothing from Stephanie. In the meantime, I had dusted off the telephone to contact a few select sweets aficionados. Genesse Gentry, an eager selection, suddenly had car trouble and was unsure when her car would be available so she started to work on arranging a ride with other enthusiasts. Another potential is recuperating from knee surgery, and another was in the hospital for biopsies. I concluded the idea and interaction with the company representatives had been fun, and I had a ton of work to do. I returned focus to the lineup of articles I had on my mile long list.
Let the butterfly go and it will come back to you, they say. The next day, amidst the flurry of emails I usually get, came one from Stephanie Rush. It turned out that the messages presumed to have gone to her had been sent to her father, Stephen Rush, who is also involved in the company, but not to her. Stephanie had been left completely out of the loop. She only learned of the focus group when someone on her staff said, "Plans are going well with Diana."
Stephanie's father called the same day to reassure me that Stephanie would email me and that they all appreciated my efforts.
So, as the full moon began to wane, my research team and I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco heading to the Haight-Ashbury district. Don Leach at the wheel, Marcie Leach, Genesse and I arrived at Joanna McClure's Asbury Street Victorian fifteen minutes later.
Joanna is the real deal. She co-authored a book of poetry with her then-husband, Michael McClure and has written three books of her own and volumes more in her private collections. She is noted in the Conari Press book, "Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution." Most important, Joanna is a woman of lasting sensitivity, independent thought and self-truth. Joanna's home seemed the perfect setting for the legacy and traditions of the chocolate confection.
Thanks to Don and Marcie's parking saint we landed a fortuitous spot a mere block from Joanna's. Inside we climbed the steep stairs of the Painted Lady to Joanna's third floor apartment. I was happy to be revving up the engines and engaging muscles to work off the mushy-tush aging delivers and the over-indulgence I was about to dive into.
After introductions, Don surrendered to my pleas for help deciphering the workings of the new digital video camera I brought to document our experiment.
The rest of the science crew took a tour of the flat. Each item of Joanna's décor tells a story of her richly historic life.
Later, when Don sighed that he had missed the tour, I realized what a sacrifice he had made. Joanna's bedroom view stretches to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallons – tiny, unmanned islands where Steller Sea Lions and Fur Seals breed, Marbled Murrelets and Brown Pelicans roost and Blue Whales and Orcas feed and pass on their way north.
Joanna had brewed half-decaf, half-regular coffee as Marcie had requested and set a pot of hot water on the stove for tea. The team gathered a few more chairs to seat seven round a small table. Three tall candles flickered warmth and welcome. We each took a delicate, hand-painted china cup and saucer and a small plate for our samples.
Stephanie arrived and pulled out her wares while I set up the back-up audio and attached the camera to a six inch tripod.
Richard Thomson, Joanna's friend, artist and contractor for 30 years, joined us just before the samples were passed. Richard has modernized the house with open ceilings, skylights and a window garden, and had gifted Joanna with his sculpture of Electra and Chrysothemis.
The crew passed four bowls of Rushburn Toffee round the table. I can not tell you which flavor was most preferred. I will only say each flavor brought smiles. We noshed on broken chunks of English Toffee made with semi-sweet chocolate with almonds, and Espresso Toffee with espresso-flavored semi-sweet chocolate and almond pieces.
Genesse, also a published poet, noted that because the milk chocolate is sweeter than the dark, it took time to reach the dark's flavor. Reversing the tastings order should solve the problem. In further conversation about the nutritional merits of dark over milk chocolate, Genesse informed that the problem with milk chocolate is that there is not the depth of nutrients as it is diluted.
"Ah," I said. "Well, you just have to eat more of it!"
Stephanie passed the Espresso Toffee and offered that coffee lovers may find it too subtle. I do. Did she hint that they would come out with a stronger blend or is that a presumptive wish? The company is open to suggestions for new products, she had said.
My eyes widened when she unwrapped the toffee clusters. It is my habit to eat broken cookies confident that they contain no calories, so it would be better for me to go with the chocolate clusters resembling turtles made by other chocolatiers – neatly formed and encased in chocolate. My fantasy variation for the clusters would contain a perk-me-up dose of coffee. Marcie suggested they be made with decaf. Dark chocolate clusters with decaf – a near perfect food. At present, the clusters feature bountiful chocolate, dark or milk, with bits of toffee and almonds.
The testers took away a toffee sampler in a sophisticated silver box. As head scientist, I took a silver gift tin, lovely and practical for dozens of after-uses and rousing memories of the experience at every glance.
My conclusions for the experiment:
1.Tragedy was averted by Grammer Betty when she recreated her mother's toffee.
2.Stephanie averted further disaster by taking the confection public.
3.More research is required – and, my friends and I are willing to conduct as many trials as are necessary.
4.Rushburn Chocolate Toffee is to live for!
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