Westword: You don’t come from a food and hospitality background. So how, exactly, did you come to own a caramel company and now a Texas-style food shop?
Ellen Daehnick: My background is in business and government services. I was a demographer after college. I did an MBA at Columbia…and then I worked at McKinsey & Company [a management consulting firm] in Texas. A couple of years later, I went out on my own, and then I moved to Colorado and worked for a tech company. I was hankering to do something in food. I’d gotten married and was casting around. My husband finally said, “You make those caramels, and people seem to like them. Perhaps people will pay money for them.” Everything you could get when it came to caramels in those days was really sweet and firm, even in an artisan world. I like super-dark, almost burnt, and fresh and creamy. I tested for a year, and I found a lot of people had the same preference I did. So five years ago, I launched Helliemae’s. It’s moved along and grown. I always knew I wanted a retail store for Helliemae’s; I wanted a heart home for the brand so people could take a peek into the kitchen to see what’s going on. And I didn’t want to limit it to caramels. I’ve been saying it would be good to be able to find more Texas-style food in Denver, food that tastes like my memories of being a kid in Houston. That’s how Post Oak evolved. It’s a pretty limited menu, but these are dishes that I love; they’re my best expression of my personal memories.
Tell me more about what Texas-style food really is.
The biggest thing is big flavors. Texas is a big place. You hear that phrase, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” and it actually is. There are big personalities and big hair. There’s chili, Tex-Mex and barbecue, which is what Texas is known for. Then there are places in Texas that have big diverse populations with lots of immigrants. Houston has a big Vietnamese community and Indian community, and a very open business climate. Twenty or thirty years ago, you could make a handshake deal and get a business going. So there are lots of restaurants with interesting takes on the food of those communities. When I think of Indian food, I think of the northern Indian food at this one specific place. What I grew up eating never disappointed. It’s hard to have a bad meal — I love eating in Houston as much as in New York; I always know I’m going to have a really good experience.
So what are you taking from that and bringing here?
We have this particular kind of po’ boy. When you think of a po’ boy, most people think of the Louisiana style, with seafood. But in Houston in the ’90s, when you were running around town, you could stop and get a pre-wrapped po’ boy. The sandwiches came out of Syrian and Lebanese immigrant communities, who had trouble getting people into their stores for the cheese, olives and hummus — so they said, “Maybe we should sell sandwiches to get people in the door.” It’s made on a crusty but not too crusty French roll, with a thin layer of mayo, chow chow, cold cuts, cheese and dill pickles. The Southern version of chow chow is the best known; it’s a pickle that you put on things like beans, and it’s sweet and green-tomato-based. The version in Houston is less sweet; it’s spicier and it’s cabbage-based. Like all great sandwiches, it’s about how those flavors interact. You get meaty, tangy, sweet and spicy in one bite. For our version, we’re using butter instead of mayo because it’s a little tastier and it keeps the bread from getting softer. We’re using baguettes from a Vietnamese bakery. And then we’ll also have the lemon pie my mother used to make every summer, which in Houston was from, like, March to November. It has a Saltine-cracker crust and there’s sweetened condensed milk in the filling; it tastes like childhood. And then we have kolaches, which are not typically thought of as from Houston, but I also spent a lot of time in Austin. Czech immigrants popularized them. The kolaches I want are big, puffy, overdone and delicious, and filled with really good fruit, not something that’s been jarred or canned.
You’re starting with just a few items. Any plans to bring on more Texas treats in the future?
This is our trial run. We’re asking, “What do people want? How do we provide it to them?” After the holidays, we’ll expand. We’re looking at coffee. And we’re thinking about doing hot lunches on Fridays. Maybe red beans with rice, pinto beans with corn bread, or Frito pie. When Frito pie is made well, it’s really delicious.
You’ve been an integral part of Denver’s craft maker scene. What does “craft” mean to you?
When we started, we were doing craft events at Fancy Tiger and the Denver Flea, but Helliemae’s is not really crafty — we’re craft-adjacent. I am an enthusiastic consumer of craft, even if I’m not so great at Art with a capital A. When I transitioned from Ellen wrapping caramels alone to employees who are wrapping caramels on equipment, I asked, “How do you make sure heart stays?” It comes back to consistency, process and quality check. You’ll never hear me describe our product as artisan, because what is that? Safeway sells artisan baked bread. This is about the experience of eating the caramels, how they’re packaged, and the story of how they’re made.
How does sourcing factor into what you do?
Sourcing quality ingredients is harder than I thought. Additive-free cream is hard to get. I make a really dark caramel, taking the sugar to the edge of burnt, and then I add butter and cream. If you have stabilizers and gum in that cream, it behaves unpredictably. Cream without additives and hormones is hard to find. There are cream shortages at a national level. And then, if you’re going to make candy, you have to use cane sugar; it’s chemically identical to beet, but it has a more reliable melt point, so it behaves more predictably. But I can’t source cane sugar locally. So I tend to source for safety first, then taste, then everything else, including the quality of the relationship, ethics, people and environment. Savory [Spice Shop] grinds all our spices for us. We’re able to have that relationship.
You’ve scaled slowly but steadily and achieved a good measure of longevity in an industry in which you had no experience before you launched. Talk to me about what’s made you successful.
Consistency is really easy to talk about, but it’s hard to achieve. Even in small-scale specialty food manufacturing, we want the product to be the same when people encounter it across time. That means we need standardized processes, systems, quality assurance and training, and we need to hire really well. All the things that go into big businesses are just as important when you’re small. We have a team of ten people now. They’re kind of amazing people. They take what they’re doing as seriously as I do, and they’re really good at what they do. They try to make every box of caramels as good as the last and do it a little faster.
Hiring is one of the biggest obstacles facing the industry right now. How have you managed to overcome that?
We make it pretty hard to get hired here, so the people who do get hired are great. I’ve never made a mistake. I built the [hiring] process to surface the candidates who are going to be a good fit and discourage the ones who aren’t. It’s challenging to get in the door, but [the process] encourages people who have the attributes I want. I don’t hire for experience or résumé or credentials. I hire for attributes. I can train you on skills; I can’t train you on wanting to do them well.
Helliemae’s and Post Oak Hall are located at 6195 West 44th Avenue in Wheat Ridge, and open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, call 303-834-7048 or go to postoakhall.comsaltcaramels.com and postoakhall.com.