Savvy candy-makers have long recognized the flavor affinity between chocolate and peanut butter. That wisdom is reflected in sales figures: Seven of the top ten chocolate candy bars are made with peanuts or peanut butter.
But if Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is the first thing you think of when this marriage made in heaven comes to mind, it may be time to unleash your taste buds and take a walk on the wild side to sample some grown-up fare. Entrepreneur Jerry Swain's handmade peanut butter balls are a good place to start.
Swain's confections are the real deal — a grown-up version of Reese’s that is a heavenly amalgamation of all-natural peanut butter and chocolate.
The otherworldly taste, though, has a more down-to-earth provenance. Swain first began concocting confections in his parents’ kitchen when he was in college, hand-rolling all-natural peanut butter in rich chocolate to make treats for a potluck party at his college, University of California Riverside. The peanut butter balls were an instant hit and Swain’s fellow students soon began asking, “Are you going to make your balls again?”
Soon known campus-wide as “Jer’s balls,” the treats graduated with Swain and became a staple of dinner parties he gave for friends to raise money for local food banks in Southern California, where he was scaling the corporate heights as a sales executive with IBM.
“It was a good cause, good fun and good food,” he told BusinessNewsDaily.
Taking the leap
Swain’s career continued to soar and he left IBM to become the executive vice president of sales and marketing for a telecommunications company in southern California. But there was something missing.
“I was itching to do something on my own,” he said.
He consulted with his father, who asked him, “Well, what do you like? Have you ever thought about peanut butter?” His father also shared some advice from his own career about putting off doing what you really like in the hopes that the path will get easier.
“As life goes on, it gets more responsible, not less,” he told him.
Swain took the dare and decided to turn his passion for producing chocolate and peanut butter confections into a profession. In 2000, he started Jer’s Handmade Chocolates in Solana Beach, a seaside community north of San Diego.
“I jumped in with both feet,” he said.
While remaining small and focused solely on making handmade, small-batch candy that combined chocolate and peanut butter, he expanded the line of products to include candy bars and balls made with dark, milk or white chocolate and a variety of additional fillings such as rice crisps, pretzels, toffee and caramel.
“I didn’t want it to be a 'me too' product,” Swain said. “I didn’t want to chase fads or trends.”
The initial years were rough, he concedes, but his confections began gaining traction with buyers in 2004 when their quality and unique taste got them on the radar of national retailers such as Nordstrom, Barney’s and Whole Foods.
“That’s really when the momentum started,” he said.
Solana Beach may be far from the storied chocolate trail that winds its way through Switzerland and Belgium, but Jer’s soon began gaining international attention, and has won six international confectioners' awards.
Today the company has six employees on staff, another six on contract and seven to 20 production workers at the factory, depending on production levels. Jer’s is profitable, with sales of approximately $10 million.
“We make a premium product,” he said. “We deserve a fair price and a fair profit.”
Like many small niche companies with quality products and growing customer awareness, Jer’s is squarely in the sights of high-end gourmet food organizations.
“People are exploring us more than we are exploring them,” Swain said. “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing right how. The first couple of years were not enjoyable. I want to grow the brand and the company. I like growing something from scratch. We want to be known as the pioneer in all-natural gourmet peanut butter and chocolate. The Jiffs, the Skippys, the Peter Pans — we’ll let them battle for market share.”