I stand at her table nibbling samples of her wares: a layer of toffee, topped by a thin layer of chocolate -- milk, dark, white or espresso. The toffee is buttery and crumbly, with a satisfying crunch, the chocolate melting smooth. The table also boasts a couple of other treats: cheesy popcorn and Toastie Tim's Stoner Corn -- sweet buttery caramel corn that tastes the way Crackerjack would if Crackerjack had depth, lusciousness and soul.Tungsten Toffee began nine or ten years ago when Mary was home-schooling her daughter, Nora. "I had read all the books and I just didn't know what to do," Mary tells me. "Nora loved to cook. I thought if we started a business, we could incorporate math, cooking, science. I could teach her about altitude. Nora said, 'Let's do that toffee recipe your friend showed us that's so hard to make.' We tried and failed a couple of times, then we made some and took it to Mountain Market in Nederland, and it sold out immediately.
"I'd planned to go back to school to be a nurse. When we started getting phone calls, I told them the toffee was just a one-time thing. But then I thought, well, we could actually continue," she remembers. "It kept growing and growing. I was put on a two-year wait list for a nursing program, but it grew to the point where I had to make a decision. I decided to go for it, and we started playing with the different flavors."
The toffee is hand-made in small batches in the professional community center kitchen in Nederland. Quality control is tight, and even now a batch sometimes fails because of the vicissitudes of candy-making at altitude, variations of aatmospheric pressure and humidity. "Sometimes you can't get a batch to set," Mary says. "You have to put it aside and say, I'm done."
She's a perfectionist: "Two years ago, we moved from hand-mixing on the stove to a mixer we can stop and start with a motor, but the process is the same. We taste as we go, and you can tell if it's right when you're pouring. I pretty much taste every batch. We always strive for consistency. There are times when it's too humid and the toffee doesn't set right and I'll throw it out and people say, 'Are you crazy? It tastes great,' and I say, 'No, it's off.' So you can say I'm a little neurotic, but I think in the end it pays off."
The popcorn she uses is GMO-free and the ingredients are straightforward: butter, cane sugar, almonds.At this point, the entire family is involved in the project. Mary's husband does the purchasing and designs all the labels and packaging. Her son Nick is a student at Columbia College in Chicago, but he helps from there with Internet sales and the website. Nora, now 22, works in the kitchen and staffs market booths, and so does younger daughter Emily. "This year Emily might learn how to make the toffee," says Mary. "She's asked to be in the kitchen full time. She doesn't know what's coming: The toffee gets to 300 degrees; it's really hot. They all follow their own path, and if it leads them to the business, it's fine." I ask if she sees Tungsten as the next Enstrom's. "No, no, no," she says. "I'm thinking smaller." But then she adds: "That's a difficult question. I don't see us being that big. To me that's too big. But that's something that changes often.
"This was never something where I said to the family, This is what we're doing," she concludes. I'm just grateful it has given us the ability to live where we live and have our kitchen and be close to each other."
It's just as well Mary's relaxing right now. If previous holiday seasons are any guide, she and her family will be swamped with orders soon. And as word gets out about this beautiful space and the array of fine goods available here Saturday mornings, you can expect One Boulder Plaza to be thronged as well.