If you asked alumna Julie Ciezadlo (July 2004) if her favorite sweet treat
is caramel corn, her answer would likely be an emphatic “No!” Ironic, given that Julie is the Chef/Owner of Tuffy Kickshaw’s — not caramel, but, rather, Sweetly Covered Corn. While she may not crave it, that sweetly covered corn became a vehicle for Julie to express her culinary creativity.
A Colorado native with a degree in anthropology, Julie worked at a number of different jobs while she began a family. Though she considered herself a good home cook, Julie hadn’t considered a professional culinary career until she
and a friend decided to try
their hands at catering
as a new career option.
While somewhat more interested in pastry than the savory side of the kitchen, Julie was intrigued by the intensity of the Cook Street 180° Program and European Culinary Tour. “I’m glad I enrolled at Cook Street,” says Julie. “I got a good foundation in French and Italian techniques. And I came back from Europe with a different relationship with the food I eat and the wine I drink.”
Julie’s passion for cooking and pastry continued to develop after graduation. “I’m always reading, comparing different techniques and flavor profiles and constantly learning more about pastry.” She started a small business, doing what she set out to do —pastry catering. “I would spend two days working on a cake. It was wonderful and fabulous, but I couldn’t charge for the amount of time I put into working on it.”
A little over a year and a half ago, Julie, who was always responsible
for bringing dessert, made some caramel corn for a “girls' weekend” with
friends. The caramel corn was a hit, and Julie began thinking up new flavor possibilities. “Popcorn is really such a great canvas for whatever fun stuff
and flavors you bring to it. I thought it would be easy and fun.”
Julie’s creativity is not limited to her culinary skills and she began envisioning her new brand. She wanted the product to have a vintage feel, more masculine, or as she described it, “Coney Island…motorcycles…” Julie enlisted a creative professional to help her craft the brand, including the name itself. Tuffy is
an old word for toffee and kickshaw is a word meaning an exotic tidbit or delicacy. The words together created an image of a guy who makes sweetly covered corn. Julie specifically avoided the “gourmet caramel corn” label that invokes images of large red tins and tacky Christmas malls.
While Tuffy Kickshaw did start slowly — a farmers’ market here, an event there — it wasn’t long until she was inundated with orders. “It actually felt like ‘trickle, trickle, trickle…Waterfall!” Part of that success came with an arrangement with the Hotel Monaco, which provides the sweetly covered corn to its guests. And part of the waterfall effect came from 5280’s blog post:
“The Obsession: Tuffy Kickshaw’s Sweetly Covered Corn. I'm embarrassed to admit how quickly I blew through not one, but two, bags
of Tuffy Kickshaw's Sweetly Covered Corn. When I opened the fiery-sweet jalapeño addiction and the decadent whiskey ’n brown butter (made with Stranahan's) I intended to try a couple kernels of each flavor. But the small-batch treats got the best of me: After devouring half a bag of each, I had to walk away from my desk to avoid finishing them both. I polished off the rest the next day.”
Julie opts for seasonal menus to keep her popcorn line fresh and fun.
This past Fall and Winter, she featured products like Cinnamon French Toast, Caffe Dolce (caramel, cinnamon, biscotti and hazelnuts) and Malted Milk Stout (Ska Brewing Company's Milk Stout and malted milk). In Spring and Summer, popcorn lovers might enjoy Lovely Day (white chocolate and lemon) and
How Civilized (Earl Grey and orange-scented shortbread) for a treat with
a lighter touch.
Julie does everything ‘Tuffy Kickshaw’ — from making the corn to stamping bags to deliveries to fielding national orders and a flood of publicity. Tuffy Kickshaw is far from that easy, fun little idea she had a year or so ago. “When I went to Cook Street, I thought I had two choices: to work in a restaurant or as a caterer. There’s a whole wide world of stuff that you can
do in the food business.”
What’s next for Julie and Tuffy Kickshaw’s Sweetly Covered Corn?
“I’ve created a framework for the business that I’m still growing into.
The first thing I need is to move out of the commissary and into my own kitchen. Beyond that, it will be hiring to keep up with demand.” For anyone who has sampled that sweetly covered corn, it’s obvious that demand will only continue to increase. And if you haven't sampled it, you can start your addiction by picking up a bag in the Cook Street Café.