When Cary Cound quit his job as an engineer to launch a candy-making business 11 years ago, he didn't stop being an engineer at heart.
"Cary has the Willy Wonka syndrome," explains Wendy Just, co-founder of Cary's of Oregon, referring to Cound's penchant for tinkering.
To understand what she means, all you have to do is take a tour through the company's Grants Pass factory, located in a warehouse across Highway 199 from the Josephine County Fairgrounds, and watch the candy-making devices that Cound has brought to life.
The cavernous production room is crammed with conveyor belts, vats and a variety of high- and low-tech machines.
First off, toffee is mixed in a large, copper kettle.
"Copper has more even heat distribution," Cound says.
Liquid toffee is then poured into a gleaming, steel box with a slit in the bottom. The box rolls across a conveyor belt, laying out the molten toffee in a sheet of uniform thickness.
As the toffee cools, circular knives roll down the belt, cutting the toffee into strips. Timing is critical.
"If you don't let it cool long enough, it will melt back together," Cound explains. "If you wait too long, you're going to have a long time getting through it, and it won't snap properly."
The toffee strips are then cut crosswise to create 1-inch squares that are the signature shape of Cary's toffee. The candy then falls onto another conveyor belt that travels perpendicular to the first belt. The falling action ensures that the pieces snap apart.
In the final stage of the process, the toffee squares pass through a vibrating belt where liquid chocolate falls in a curtain.
"It shakes like that so the chocolate will flow off that piece of candy, and any excess will drip down through the wire belt and be recirculated," Cound says. "That way, you get an even distribution of chocolate, and it's not all humped up on the top."
The result would make Willy Wonka jealous. Unlike the thin, brittle texture of traditional English toffee, this thick toffee sports a soft crunch that allows plenty of time for the buttery flavor to roll over your taste buds.
The seed idea for the company was planted many years before Cound founded his business, which marked its 11th anniversary in April.
"I come from a family that shows love by cooking for one another," Cound says. "One Christmas "… my wife's grandfather — without saying anything — came up (to me) with a recipe card and a piece of marble."
The recipe was for English toffee. The marble was the surface on which liquid toffee would cool. Cound made a batch for himself and a second one for the older man.
"He took one bite and said, 'You know, you can sell this,' " Cound recalls.
Over the succeeding years, Cound experimented in his kitchen with both the recipe and the process. His daughters provided free test marketing.
"I owned my own home and took out a mortgage on it," Cound says, looking back on his decision to switch careers.
"People often ask me, 'What was Plan B?' No. You don't go into this with Plan B. You make it work."
Some people might think it's strange to go from being an engineer to a candy maker, but not Cound.
"Not at all, because you've got to have a process, and the process has to be relatively consistent in order to obtain a consistent product. "… It was helpful to make machines that otherwise would have been hideously expensive to buy, if you could buy them."
These days, Cound serves as an advisor for other entrepreneurs with a sweet tooth, discussing everything from product quality to equipment to financing.
"It's so cool to see the people I sat down with, and then see them two years later," Cound says. "They're doing it."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.