ROANOKE, Va. – A 62-year-old entrepreneur said her business came as a sweet surprise.
It all started in 2009 when Synethia Nichols, a retired Roanoke City Public Schools psychologist, tried a colleague’s caramels. When she tasted the savory treat, she said she felt like “she had died and went to heaven.”
It wasn’t long before she started researching different recipes and methods to make her own caramel bites.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled the word ‘caramel’ in the past years. And, I have probably looked at more YouTube videos than I can shake a stick at,” she said.
Now, the Norfolk native has been running her own caramel business, Caramels by Sam, for about 12 years.
“I think I’ve done well. I haven’t gotten carpal tunnel syndrome or anything like that,” she said with a laugh.
Looking back, she can’t help but feel amazed at how far she has come and admits that at first, she had her doubts.
“I didn’t feel like I was a salesperson really, but then I just kind of said, ‘well, I mean, what do I got to lose?’”
November and December are her busiest months. During that time alone she said she cuts and wraps nearly 10,000 to 12,000 caramels.
She attributes much of her success to her faith in God.
“In my opinion, you have to have a faith base. If you allow God to set up a situation where you can be successful, then you can have a really successful business,” Nichols said.
In addition to following God’s direction, Nichols said that making caramels also requires patience, noting that the process is a “a labor of love.”
She said she spends hours researching and studying different recipes and ingredients to perfect the flavor of her caramel candies.
As for what’s inside her treats: brown butter, corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk, sea salt harvested in England and vanilla extract. But it’s not any extract. That ingredient alone sets Nichols back $100 per quart.
When orders come in, she gathers a pan, pot, whisk, foil and candy thermometer and sets them out the night before.
The next day, she spends about 45 minutes making a double batch of caramel.
The key, she said, is how long you cook it, because if it’s cooked too long, it could make the caramels too hard.
Once the mixture is finished, she leaves it out for about four to five hours to cool, cuts the caramel into small rectangular pieces and finally, she wraps them.
Nichols’ attentiveness stems from her desire to adhere to the wants of her customers and treat them like family.
“The friendships and relationships over the years have been absolutely wonderful. I think I’ve developed a lot of lasting ones,” she said.
The candies are available in both sea salt and vanilla year-round, with additional flavors available during November and December.
Caramels by Sam has more than just caramels as Nichols also sells caramel popcorn, toffee, apple cakes and peanut brittle. Her peanut brittle was inspired by her mother-in-law’s recipe.
Her husband, Fletcher, helped her perfect that recipe and has supported her business from the start by helping her with photography and giving her feedback on her products.
The two met in their early 20s during their undergraduate career at VCU and have been married for more than 35 years.
“Caramels by Sam caught us by surprise,” he said. “I knew the first time that I put the caramel in my mouth that she had something that was unique.”
Fletcher said it was fascinating to watch his wife’s business flourish.
“I was so excited because she’s so unassuming,” he said. “I got a chance to see her go out and reach some goals and have an extra dream.”
Although Synethia is still learning, she said she hopes that her story can help inspire others to venture out just as she did.
“If you’ve got the gift in you, and you have a passion for it just put the time into perfect any and everything about it,” she said. “At least have enough willpower, guts to just do all that you can do to get it done.”