A sweet homecoming for Nebraska food scientist-turned-candymaker

After years as a food scientist for candy companies Hershey’s and Ferrara, Nebraska-native Tessa Porter returned home to start the state’s only candy supplier: Sprinkk. Now, Porter works with clients to develop formulas for candies and find accessible places to manufacture.

Photo by Hooton Images

After years as a food scientist for candy companies Hershey’s and Ferrara, Nebraska-native Tessa Porter returned home to start the state’s only candy supplier: Sprinkk.

Based in Omaha, Sprinkk works with businesses to develop their new products, like gummies or chocolates.

Porter described her job as “every five year old’s dream job that they don’t know exists.” A creative at heart, she found her passion for candy science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “As silly as that is to be your calling — making candy — one thing has led to another and now I own a candy development business,” Porter said.

With Sprinkk, Porter works with clients to develop formulas for candies and find accessible places to manufacture. At  large candy operations, Porter realized that mass production make it difficult to create or change a product. She wanted to change that for others.

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Porter started the first Sprinkk lab in her hometown church’s kitchen while services were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then she operated the company out of her guest bedroom for a year. Now she works out of a commercial lab alongside one employee.

Most of the client work Porter does is confidential, but she said she’s done extensive work in the vitamin gummy space. As these vitamin gummies have become more popular, she said companies have reached out wanting to create their own product.

Besides helping clients bring their ideas to market, Porter has created her own gummy brand: Norma’s fruity snacks. The product is named after Porter’s  grandma in honor of her elderberry syrup. The snack brand sells strawberry rhubarb and elderberry ginger flavors.

Photo by Daniel P. Muller

“There are all these times where I was developing things where I wasn’t able to do it as I wanted,” Porter said. “[Norma’s] is an opportunity for me just to create whatever I want, and make it the texture that I want, using ingredients that I want.”

Teaching science through candy making

Porter also brings Sprinkk to elementary school classrooms.

“I think it’s important to get students excited about science, and what easier way to do that than through candy?” Porter said.

Through experiments making gummies or taffy, she teaches the kids about the science and engineering that takes place in the process. Each student gets to pick their own color, flavor and shape while wearing child-sized Sprinkk lab coats. Porter said the lessons are always messy, but loads of fun.

Porter is in the process of building her own manufacturing facility. The first test runs are scheduled for this summer.

Porter plans to expand Sprinkk from a two-person operation and bring in more positions on the operations and quality control side of the business once the facility is complete. She said she also plans to expand the lab over the next year.

“I would love to employ more locals and people from Nebraska and train them in candy so that Nebraska can maybe someday become a spot on the candy map,” she said.

From aspiring culinary artist to food scientist

When Porter started college at UNL, she loved creating and saw food as an outlet. She assumed being a chef and going to culinary school was the best way to pursue her passion.  

While looking into the curriculum of the culinary school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she asked if she could add chemistry and physics classes, as she noticed they weren’t there. Department heads pointed her toward the food science department — something Porter didn’t even know existed.

“I went over to the food science department then, and it was kind of like in the movies when angels sing,” Porter said. “It was just so obvious. Like you always have that gut feeling that this is home. This is where I need to be.”

Porter started getting into candy. She loved the creativity it allowed, and the challenge it provided. Porter said candy is one of the most molecularly challenging foods. Parts of candy — like sugar, cocoa butter or chocolate — can take multiple forms. So functional interactions must happen. It’s not as simple as putting a few ingredients in a bowl, she said.

Porter looked up candy science scholarships and found a substantial one from the American Association of candy technologists, which she described as a “national organization of candy nerds.” She earned it again year after year, and that led to connections to many in the candy industry.

“Ever since that, this has been my calling,” Porter said.

Porter began mastering her craft during an internship with the Hershey Company. She was paired with a mentor near retirement who was on the top end of innovation within the company. That summer, he gave her a book that contained how to make every type of candy: hard candies, toffees, fudges, marshmallows and “anything you could think of.”

Every week she’d read a chapter, take notes, talk through it in his office, and then go to the lab and make one of the recipes. During that time, he’d trick her by adding ingredients when she wasn’t looking, and have her work backward to find where the problem arose.

“I did that all summer and it was just one-on-one with this brilliant man who has seen all of this innovation,” Porter said. “I think that was really what got me the foundation that I needed to then have fun with it.”

After developing a base knowledge of candy, she could start creating. Personally, Porter gravitates towards “non-chocolate” candies. The fruity, chewy and sometimes sour types. While studying in grad school, her goal was to one day lead Research and Development for a major candy company specializing in things like jelly beans or gummies.

Photo by Hooton Images

Leading R&D for an international candy brand

After grad school, she worked as a food scientist for Ferrera Pan Candy, which at that time was a  smaller family-owned company in Chicago that made Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs and others. As the company went through various mergers and acquisitions — it was purchased by The Ferrero Group in 2017 — Porter worked her way up into research and development management.

Working in R&D, she said they ran into challenges where they could innovate, but only so much. Large-scale candy manufacturing runs on large parameters and measurements, and requires specific standards that can’t be changed, she said.

“There’s a lot of really cool ideas that we can do in the lab, but we can’t validate on the line,” Porter said.

Porter briefly left the company to work at sports nutrition company Glanbia, which was a personal interest of hers. 

Feeling unfulfilled in her role, Porter said she wanted to do something different. She started planning a move back to Nebraska to be close to her family. And to create.

Conversations with industry professionals often revealed that their largest challenge was finding a place that could manufacture newer candies. Porter decided she could do that in Nebraska.

In 2018, she planned  to move back and begin Sprinkk. But Ferrera called and asked her to return to help with their merger with Nestlé. Porter saw that as an interesting opportunity to combine products, like Ferrera’s Black Forest gummies and Nestlé’s Nerds.

In her time working there, she led projects developing Trolli Crunchy Crawlers, along with Nerds Gummy Clusters, which was launched after she left.

After repeatedly pushing back her date to return to Nebraska, she gave her boss a 6-month notice.

Porter didn’t start in Omaha right away. She moved back in with her parents and started the first Sprinkk lab in a church kitchen in Albion, using a couple of Rubbermaid totes and her supplies. Church services were paused due to the pandemic, so she began product development, creating candy and gummy formulas for clients.

“It was me and the quilting ladies,” Porter said. “I had a few clients at that time where I was writing formulas for them and I would test them out and just make them there in the church kitchen.”

After moving into an apartment, she moved the lab into her second bedroom. She stayed there for a years.

Now she has swapped the Rubbermaid totes with legitimate lab equipment. Today, Porter develops formulas out of her lab in Omaha. She is also building her own Sprinkk manufacturing facility, so they can create their products by themselves.  Construction on the facility is underway in Albion, and Porter said it should be up and running by the end of summer.

“I always want to have this playground for candy innovation, and seeing what we can create out of it,” Porter said. “For me, Sprinkk is it.”

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