The Sweetest Thing

The Sweetest Thing

The Sweetest Thing
Words by Abigail Abesamis Demarest Images by Cedric Angeles

Meet Stephanie Upshaw, an Alys Beach homeowner and the founder of Bluff City Toffee.

When Stephanie Upshaw shows up to a party, she almost always brings toffee. Her friends and family have enjoyed her homemade toffee for more than 30 years. After working in corporate America for almost three decades she decided to finally pursue her entrepreneurial journey, and in 2016 Bluff City Toffee was born. The rest, as they say, is history.

Stephanie Upshaw has always had a sweet tooth, and it’s fair to say she comes by it quite honestly. Her mother is a natural in the kitchen and Stephanie grew up watching her with wonder as she whipped together dishes, often without a recipe. On special occasions, when her father was out of town, and if Stephanie and her siblings had been on their best behavior, her mother served the children dessert for dinner. Or rather, she served dessert dinner. Homemade and fully-coursed, the meal was well-rounded with creativity from start to finish. It was a child’s delight. “It would start with no-bake cookies as the appetizer, and continue with peanut butter fudge and French silk chocolate pie,” she says. “We’d wash it all down with Big Red soda. It was truly a treat for a 10-year-old.” 

It’s safe to say that those days in the kitchen with her mother made an impression on Stephanie. After graduating from college and starting her career, Stephanie revisited a bit of her childhood memories when she began making toffee with a friend. Her homemade treats quickly became her go-to for holiday gifts, birthdays, or a simple treat for friends and family. 

“Once my children left for college it felt natural to start a business,” Stephanie says. “It started slow but the city of Memphis immediately embraced the product.” She shifted from making batches at home to working in a commercial kitchen, which required making some tweaks to the recipe. “The recipe has evolved so much in the five years since I started my business,” she says. “Once you get into a commercial kitchen it’s a different process.” In addition to having access to top-of-the-line equipment, a commercial kitchen also meant working with food scientists to better understand nutrition panels, shelf life, and all of the ins and outs of product development. In 2020, Stephanie secured her own commercial kitchen (rather than renting out space in someone else’s), which also serves as a fulfillment center includes a small retail area. 

Even though Stephanie isn’t making toffee out of her kitchen anymore, and has five seasonal employees to help her, she notes that Bluff City Toffee is still handcrafted and made in small batches. As her business has grown, she’s been intentional about preserving the handmade nature of the process and making delicious magic with just four ingredients: butter, sugar, nuts, and chocolate.

It’s this simplicity that makes her toffee so special and beloved by Memphis locals and beyond. “It is a very simple process,” she says. “I make it in small batches, use natural ingredients, there are no added preservatives, and each batch is 100 percent gluten-free.” She hears customers note the uniqueness of Bluff City Toffee in its softer, less brittle texture.

And though the ingredients may be simple, and while Stephanie may make it seem easy, the craft process is one that takes years to master. 

I love the challenge of making toffee,” she says. “It’s tricky to make something that has ingredients with different boiling points.” From caramelizing the sugar to watching the creamy texture evolve, Stephanie masterfully heats and combines ingredients and is endlessly fascinated by the process. You know a fresh batch of toffee has just been made by the sweet aroma of caramelized sugar wafting through the air.

The city where she launched her toffee and chocolate business has also been instrumental to her success and the growth of her business. She often tests product with local businesses, taking requests for new recipes and challenging herself to make something special and new for folks in her community. These days, you can find Bluff City Toffee at more than a dozen retail stores in Memphis, and they ship nationwide. “Memphis is such a food town,” Stephanie says. “The city does a wonderful job embracing local makers; they’ve supported not only my company but a lot of other smaller food businesses.”

Inspired by her mother’s cooking and encouraged by her supportive family all along the way, Bluff City Toffee has always been, from its inception, truly a familial brand.

“My favorite family memories are of Bluff City Toffee’s early days during the busy fall season,” she says. “Everyone would be involved––me, Walker (my husband of 31 years), and our two children. We cooked, measured, and packaged product together. I often had to remind them not to eat the inventory!” 

Today, Stephanie splits her time between Memphis and her new home in Alys Beach. “We’ve been vacationing along 30A for a long time,” she says. “We really enjoy the tight-knit community here at Alys Beach, all of the amenities, and we’ve met so many wonderful people. It’s been a great neighborhood to be a part of.” And knowing Stephanie, her new neighbors might just have something sweet to look forward to.

To learn more about Bluff City Toffee, visit bluffcitytoffee.com.