As far as ingredients go, toffee isn’t complicated — it’s mostly sugar and butter. The sticky, sweet treat isn’t hard to make, confectioners say. It’s just hard to make it right.
So, for Sherry Giannini (pictured), owner of Phoenix’s The Toffee Merchant, mastering the art of making toffee within a year of learning how to do it was an accomplishment. She started making it out of her home kitchen in 2020, during the pandemic. By June 2021, she’d received numerous awards for her toffee from the International Chocolate Salon, and she’d also earned that organization’s title of “Master Chocolatier and Confectioner in America.”
“I was blown away,” she says. “Believe it or not, I’d never made toffee before.”
Giannini took up toffee making as a way to stay busy when she and her husband were about to become empty nesters. But the hobby took off when people couldn’t get enough of her unique flavors. “I’ve always loved to cook,” she says. “And through the years, I became a cookbook collector and reader. I probably have thousands of cookbooks.”
That love of cooking was instilled in Giannini by her grandmother, who used to make fresh biscuits and tea whenever her granddaughter would spend the night. When she got older, Giannini looked forward to getting her grandmother’s holiday dessert boxes, especially the pecan snowballs and homemade jam, every year.
“She was the best cook, and I got my love of cooking from her,” Giannini says. And she’s continued her grandmother’s tradition by sending her own care packages of holiday treats to friends and family.
When Giannini decided to learn how to make toffee, it came naturally. She researched recipes and developed her own. Her first batch didn’t turn out right, she says, but the second one was perfect. “It’s really bizarre, because nothing happens like that,” she says. “It’s almost like it’s not even me; it’s some higher power, and I’m just working and making [the toffee].”
Giannini makes each batch to order and packages it herself. She says she makes roughly 150 pounds a week to sell at farmers markets and local shops.
But the ingredients she incorporates in the mixture and the toppings are what sets the toffee apart. Flavors such as Key lime and Mexican hot chocolate aren’t traditional for toffee, but Giannini has found that people come back for more every time. “Everybody loves my flavors,” she says. “Right now, I have eight, and that’s a lot for me. But I have to make them, because people like every single one of them.”
While she likes to experiment with different flavors, Giannini says she’s not trying to be trendy with her profiles. “I’m more of a ‘tried and true’ person,” she says. “If I do any more flavors, I’m going to stick with traditional.” Either way, she says she’s past the point of wanting to work a 9-to-5 job, so she likes making her own schedule while doing something she enjoys.
Brad Hass, a Toffee Merchant fan and customer, discovered the business this year at a corporate event in Scottsdale, where he received a gift basket that included the toffee. Since then, he’s ordered several times to share the product with friends and family. “My wife and I have always enjoyed sweets, including toffee; however, we’ve never had toffee like this before,” Hass says. “I’m partial to the bourbon pecan, because I feel like the topping perfectly enhances, but doesn’t overwhelm, the taste of the toffee.”
Hass says another thing that makes The Toffee Merchant stand out is that the toffee is crunchy without being too hard, a balance that’s often difficult to find.
The Toffee Merchant’s products can be ordered online or purchased at Phoenix-area farmers markets, as well as the Merchantile of Scottsdale and Sphinx Date Co. Palm & Pantry. Vegan versions of Giannini’s toffees are available at Pomegranate Cafe in the Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood of Phoenix.
The Toffee Merchant