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Money & Career

How a Dentist and Her Husband Learned to Satisfy a Sweet Tooth – and Build a Business

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For dentists, sugar can be something of a public enemy. For pediatric dentists, perhaps even more so.

That’s what led pediatric dentist Jenny Citineni, D.D.S., and her husband, Tom Thekkekandam, to create their own brand of sugar-free caramels. You could say they’ve found something of a sweet spot in their journey to build Tom & Jenny’s.

The seed was planted around 2011, when Jenny was working with kids at a children’s dental clinic. “I noticed the struggle was so real with avoiding sweet snacks, and people kept getting cavities,” she says. She’d recommend different sugar-free brands that she’d learned about in dental school, but the patients kept coming back with more cavities. She and her husband, who each have an insatiable sweet tooth, started trying different sugar-free candy to see if perhaps there was a better option. What they found was either lacking in flavor, left a bad aftertaste in their mouth, or the texture was off. So Citineni stocked up on sweeteners and started experimenting. Soon after, Thekkekandam joined the challenge, and it became something of an obsession for them to create a sugar-free candy that tasted indulgent. Nearly 200 batches later – most of which were prepared in their tiny Manhattan kitchen – they came up with a caramel they were proud of. Instead of sugar, they made it with xylitol, a plant-derived sweetener often found in sugar-free gum and mints that, according to the California Dental Association, “is the sugar alcohol that shows the greatest promise for cavity prevention.”

Wanting to be sure that the caramel was the best it could be, Thekkekandam sought out an expert collaborator, reaching out to Chef Michael Laiskonis, a James Beard Award winner and former head pastry chef at Le Bernardin in New York. They worked together to perfect the candy, tweaking the original caramel and also creating a chocolate version.

Then, the taste tests began. Thekkekandam assembled focus groups to share opinions about the caramels and to compare them, blindly, with top sugar-filled brands. “We started to get people saying these are delicious, are you sure they’re sugar-free?” he recalls. With that, they had the confidence they needed to take the caramels to a winter market in Long Island City. The candies sold out. They were officially onto something.

Thekkekandam quit his job as a consultant so he could fully focus on the business, which they named Tom & Jenny’s. Around the same time, they had their first child, and he recalls that his activities essentially revolved around caring for her and making caramels. “Literally, my only exercise was holding a baby and stirring a pot of caramel for like four hours a day,” he says. One of their daughter’s first words was “candy.”

The next six years were a sugar-free blur: they began selling the caramels online; found a manufacturer; got them into more than 100 retail stores; developed a line of five total flavors (including coffee, ginger, spiced rum, chocolate, and classic); and appeared on QVC multiple times. Along the way, they realized that their initial target market – people looking for sugar-free candy for dental reasons – was only a small part of their audience. Many customers are drawn to the caramels because they are gluten-free and have 40 percent fewer carbohydrates (12 per serving or 2.5 per piece) and 33 percent fewer calories (100 per serving or 20 per piece) than traditional caramels, making them popular with people who are on carbohydrate-restricting diets. Today, the classic caramel is the No. 1 seller in the “caramel candy” category for a major e-commerce site.

Looking back, the husband-wife team is proud of what they’ve created. They identified an unmet need in the marketplace, bootstrapped their own independent business, and achieved Citineni’s dream of creating a better-for-you candy.

“It’s all about helping consumers have their candy and eat it, too,” says Thekkekandam.

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