Rich buttery sweetness enveloped me upon entering Béquet Confections. I felt as though I was embraced by a good friend, in a place of joy and comfort. I was reminded of the sensations evoked by aromas of Thanksgiving dinner cooking and baking bread.
For years I have driven by Béquet Confections’ showroom near Four Corners in Bozeman. Every time I cruised past, I vowed to stop, but destination beckoned. I partly blamed the rush of traffic on Huffine Lane, the artery for Highway 191, that hurried me along. Instead of turning around, I looked longingly over my shoulder at having missed the driveway leading to the mecca of caramels.
Entering, one inhales an unforgettable aroma. As I stood in the showroom I watched workers wearing showercap style head covers and gloves spread caramel into pool-table length trays. The mixture settled into a smooth surface reflecting the fluorescent lights above. The simmering caramel brew captivated me, the thick and viscous bubbles blurping to the top, releasing mesmerizing steam.
Nearly 20 years ago, Robin Béquet founded Béquet Confections. After her job in the medical device industry came to an abrupt end, she made the decision to pursue another career track. Fifteen years before, Béquet worked for W.L. Gore and Associates, a multinational manufacturing company specializing in products derived from fluoropolymers. She worked 12 of those years in Flagstaff, Arizona until her husband, who was also employed by the company, was relocated to Bozeman. Béquet later took a job with ILX Lightwave and when the company was just about to go public in 2001, “I had a front row seat for the train wreck.” After many rounds of layoffs, she lost her job. “Instead of retiring early with my stock options, I found myself unemployed, trying to support a family.”
Béquet always enjoyed making caramels, and over the years, shared her confections with her coworkers. Betsy Vadick, friend and ex-coworker wanted to start a business. Béquet said, “She had venture capital money and could not think of a business to start.” Then with enthusiastic encouragement from Vadick and Béquet’s husband, she was prompted to pursue making candies. However, just as they readied to launch the business, Vadick made the decision to step away to raise a family. “She is still someone very dear to me, a very good customer and friend over the years. But it was really her thinking that started me thinking about starting a business.”
Béquet adhered to a bootstrapping business plan. The idea behind the strategy was starting a company from the ground up with limited cash and minimal outside assistance. After taking a mortgage out on their home, she fully embraced fiscal conservatism. She did her own market research, beginning with identifying markets she believed would be good places for selling the caramels. Her first test market involved friends and family but later she identified gourmet markets, natural food stores, gift shops, and coffee shops as potential outlets. “I remember standing outside Montana Harvest, the natural food store that used to be on Wilson, with my samples in hand and thinking to myself what am I doing walking into a natural food store? These people eat healthy, have I lost my mind? It was the professional in me that saw the potential market. I just said to myself: go in there and present that product and you are not allowed to turn around”. Béquet traveled to nearby cities of Big Sky, Livingston, Missoula and Helena and eventually to Spokane.
The business began in a small space in Four Corners that Béquet described as a “long alley about two bowling lanes in width.” Coincidentally, as the business was starting, her father relocated to Bozeman and was one of her first workers. During the three-year period they were in this building, Montana State University was looking for someone with a biological background very similar to hers. After doing the math, Béquet took on a full-time teaching position so she could manage the expenses of the business as well as hire a new employee. All the while she continued to work part time in her caramel business. Eventually she dropped down to part time work at the school.
The turning point was winning the “Aisle-by-Aisle” award at the Fancy Food Show in New York. Béquet Caramel ranked amongst 17 best products at the show. The show is the premier food and beverage show featuring the latest in trends. The show provides a convenient and cost-effective way to meet buyers from major food and beverage venues in the United States and abroad. In the years that followed, Béquet Caramel went on to take the Sofi finalist awards for Outstanding Confection and Outstanding Food Gift at the Fancy Food Show, earning 7 awards for national recognition.
Béquet was intimidated at the first show when she saw teams of people setting up their booths. Directly across from her, the booth had an antique horse-drawn peanut roaster while she had a few tables with tablecloths. At the time she had two varieties of caramels: soft and chewy, and to provide the illusion of variety, she repeated the display throughout her booth. When asked how Béquet showcased her product amongst the thousands of exhibitors, she confidently said, “Samples.”
While at the shows, her best feedback was when attendees returned for seconds, “There is nothing more warming than that.”
Now in their third building, currently under renovation, Béquet employs 28 people year round but adds over 50 people from August to late December to prepare for the holiday season. She said, “Gearing up for the holidays takes a 16-month planning cycle. Our batches more than double in volume for the holiday season.”
Over the years, Béquet’s caramel recipe of sugar and dairy products has evolved five times. Subtle alterations are made to improve the taste and experience, but the enhancements are never announced. Béquet and her team do blind tastings all the time, comparing their product to those on the market. It is not unusual for her to receive a tray of 5 or 8 different caramels to sample and then make conclusions on modifications.
They now feature 13 varieties of caramels, ranging from textural to spicyto salty. Acknowledging input from employees and consumers, Béquet and her team take comments seriously.
The descriptions of the confections are playful and warming. CHIPOTLE is described as “Silky caramel with rich vanilla essence, infused with smoky chipotle and a satisfying kick from the light heat of jalapeño” while BUTTERSCOTCH is “A blend of two classic flavors, this butter caramel evokes memories of warm kitchens filled with enticing aromas.”
According to Sales and Marketing Leader, Megan Bleck, the three most popular caramels are the SOFT, CELTIC SEA SALT and SALT CHOCOLATE. “It’s really been fun to work with a product that I personally enjoy and love to give myself.”
From humble beginnings, the business is flourishing and expanding. They are excited about the new product introduction of caramel sauce in a cup. Béquet Confections have fulfilled their mission statement of, “Our goal is to make the very best caramel anyone has tasted.”