After a push from friends, Karen Graves turned a holiday toffee treat into a full-fledged family business with her sons and daughter-in-law Christy Graves
By Anna Beth Adock | Photography by John Michael Simpson
For years, nearly five days a week, Karen Graves would start her day before 9 a.m., prepping toffee treats on the quartz countertop in her kitchen. This is the home she raised her family in – nestled in the Old Forest Creek neighborhood – and where she first created her Chapel Hill Toffee.
A Chapel Hill resident since the 1970s, Karen attended UNC, met her husband, Griff Graves, and started her clay business, Clay Sculpture by Karen Graves, here. (For the latter, she’d create an array of artistic items from nativity scenes to whimsical personal pieces.) But soon she gravitated to a medium easier than clay. “Friends had mentioned that they wanted to buy my toffee whenever I made it for desserts for special occasions,” she recalls. A Village Advocate article about appreciating local products gave her the final push to take her enterprise full time.
In 2008, one of Karen’s sons, Mark Graves, joined her both in the kitchen and as a business partner to help spread the sweetness to “take the candy company big time.” Mark’s wife, Chapel Hill native and UNC grad Christy Graves, came on board in 2012 (the same year they moved to a commercial kitchen) and now acts as the head of marketing. She organizes media advertising, runs social media, promotions, collaborations, partnerships, product photography and more. Mark’s brother, Scott Graves, became a part of the team a few years after Christy. To boot, Mark and Christy have continued to grow the family (and the family business) via their three boys: Griff, 7, Joe, 5, and Kenan, 3.
“We worked together to grow the candy from a home-based hobby into a full-fledged business,” Christy says. Now, the company not only sells its delectable goodies in local shops such as The Carolina Inn gift shop, Victoria Park Florist, New Hope Market and Weaver Street Market, but it can be spotted in more than 800 stores throughout the country. To date, they have sold over three million boxes. But despite Chapel Hill Toffee’s success, Christy and Karen still haven’t lost sight of the care and personal touch that comes with having a small business.
“We are a true family business in every sense,” Christy says. “We do it all ourselves, from making the toffee by hand to designing the packaging. We handle every aspect of our business, from marketing, distribution, deliveries and answering every call and email.”
The secret to the mouthwatering Southern creations? Each caramelized confection is created with a layer of traditional English toffee thinly cut into snackable squares and covered on either side with a secret mix of dark chocolate and a sprinkle of pecans. In 2018, the company expanded with a coffee-flavored toffee, named after Karen’s late husband, who died in 2013.
When they aren’t cheffing up toffee to sate sweet tooths, find the Graves family out and about rooting for the Tar Heels and giving back to their community. Karen is involved with the SECU Family House while Christy is a supporter of UNC Lineberger and Dina’s Dynasty, a nonprofit she started in honor of her mother, Dina Bray, after she passed away due to ovarian cancer. And for those with a craving for community-centered craft brews, Carolina Brewery touts a stout using Chapel Hill Toffee’s flavor profile – with proceeds from the beer going directly to Dina’s Dynasty.
“The worth-it moments are many,” Karen reflects. “… I would just like to express my gratitude to the people of our community,” Christy adds. “The support that they have shown our family and their enthusiasm is the reason that we can continue to live this dream. We are continually inspired by the joy that our loyal customers share with us and from the pride we have in representing our beautiful hometown.”