Karen Graves has been making delicious toffee in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for decades. It is so delicious, she turned it into a business that now reaches people in all 50 states. Chapel Hill Toffee became so successful, she hired her former taste-testers (and sons) Mark and Scott to help run the business. Mark’s wife Christy Graves is also part of the team. She told us the full story of Chapel Hill Toffee—a behind-the-scenes look at running a family business including her memories of two of the business’ biggest cheerleaders who are now gone.
This sweet (pun intended) family business not only makes great toffee, Chapel Hill Toffee is also helping in the fight against ovarian cancer by donating a portion of all sales to the Dina's Dynasty Ovarian Cancer Fund.
Read on to get to know Christy and her family, and we dare you to resist adding Chapel Hill Toffee to your next Batch gift.
How did Chapel Hill Toffee get started?
Mom's homemade toffee was always a special treat for my husband Mark Graves and his brother Scott growing up in their family home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2006, after years of perfecting her secret family recipe, Mark's mother, Karen Graves, decided to turn her favorite hobby into her own home-based business.
During the financial crisis of 2008, Mark was laid off from his banking job in commercial lending. He saw the opportunity to join his mother in the kitchen and help her take her small business to the next level. Later, after he married me, a fellow Chapel Hill native, I joined the team as the newest member of the family business, followed soon after by his brother Scott.
Tell us more about Chapel Hill Toffee’s commitment to ending ovarian cancer through the Dina's Dynasty Ovarian Cancer Fund.
A portion of the sale of every box of toffee we sell goes directly to our Dina’s Dynasty Ovarian Cancer Fund, which aims to develop a reliable screening method for ovarian cancer and provide outstanding care for ovarian cancer patients. Thus far, since 2017, we’ve been able to contribute $15,000 to ovarian cancer research and patient care.
We established the fund in memory of Dina Bray, my mom and Mark's mother-in-law. My mom was Chapel Hill Toffee's biggest cheerleader and most tireless volunteer. Never asking for anything in return, she gave her time and energy working in each aspect of the business from packaging shipments to sprinkling pecans. She wanted nothing more than to help her family succeed.
In May of 2017, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Three weeks later, she passed away. Her diagnosis came as a shock since her symptoms masqueraded, as ovarian cancer almost always does, as "normal." Upset stomach, bloating, discomfort in the abdomen. Unfortunately, there is currently no reliable screening method to diagnose ovarian cancer and our goal is to change that, so that no one else has to lose their wife, mother, sister, or daughter. Or in Mark's case, their adoring mother-in-law.
Mom was a long time supporter and volunteer at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the fund in her name aims to support UNC Lineberger in developing a reliable screening method for ovarian cancer and providing outstanding care for ovarian cancer patients.
[Read more stories about our makers who give back to the community in the Batch Gives Back series.]
What’s it like running a business like Chapel Hill Toffee with your family?
Working with family is the most rewarding experience of our lives. When Karen and Mark began building Chapel Hill Toffee, they never dreamed that it would become a business that supported both of their sons, daughter-in-law, and now, two grandsons.
When Karen’s husband and Mark’s dad, Griff, passed away unexpectedly during the busy holiday season of 2013, it was working alongside one another that got us through our hardest days. It can often be difficult working closely with family, but we all get along very well and each of us has our own strengths. We complement each other very well. The advantage is knowing that you can completely trust the people you work with to have the best interests of you and your business in mind.
Tell us more about your family and growing up in Chapel Hill.
Mark and Scott Graves were born and raised in Chapel Hill, NC by their parents, Karen and Griff, a local real estate attorney. I was also born and raised in Chapel Hill, NC and even though Mark and I grew up in the same town and both attended the University of North Carolina, we never met until well after graduating from college! Our dads had even known each other since high school!
What is a perfect (non-COVID) day like in Chapel Hill?
For our family, a perfect day in Chapel Hill begins with a stroll down Franklin Street (the heart of our little college town) with a stop for lunch at Sutton’s Drug Store. Then a walk through campus to see the Old Well and the Bell Tower (two UNC icons) and let our three little boys run around on the quad. On a spring day, we may even be able to catch a Carolina Baseball game!
Let’s talk sports: Are y’all big Tar Heels fans?
Of course! We may actually be the Tar Heels’ biggest fans! Karen, Mark, and I all graduated from the University of North Carolina, and we have season tickets to football, basketball, and baseball games!
How do you all develop the (mouthwatering!) recipes featured on your website?
While the original toffee recipe was my mother-in-law, Karen’s, I developed the dessert recipes at home with Mark and our three young sons (5, 3, and 1 year old). I am an enthusiastic home cook with my own recipe blog, and I write a recipe column for our local news station. I like to put a twist on classic recipes to incorporate our toffee (like our Chapel Hill Toffee Pecan Pie, which has become a local tradition for many families), and look for new, creative ways to feature the toffee (my newest Toffee Bread Pudding, which I came up when I had a bunch of leftover biscuits that needed to be used.)
How did the partnership between Chapel Hill Toffee and Batch get started?
Heather Ainsworth from Batch reached out to us in December of 2020 saying that she has two Chapel Hill natives on staff who were familiar with our toffee. That was the beginning of what we hope to be a long, wonderful relationship!
[Get to know Batch’s roster of local small business owners and artisans in our Meet the Maker series.]
Anything else you want our customers around the country to know?
We are a true, family business in every sense! In our company, family comes first, no matter what.
Hungry yet? Shop Chapel Hill Toffee from Batch today to get or give some delicious North Carolina toffee and do your part to help end ovarian cancer.