"Ladies come to my table and just go crazy. They scream.”
There are not a lot of 60-year-old men who can say that, but Phil Bauman, co-owner of Eileen’s English Toffee, can.
Bauman and his wife, Lisa, say they get that reaction a lot when they sell their wares at craft shows and festivals — whether it's for their crisp, smooth toffee squares, luscious soft toffee brownies, buttery toffee cookies or just plain crumbles of crunchy goodness inside crinkly cellophane bags.
At their 3-year-old shop inside a cozy Colonial-style cottage in Richland, delectable edibles perch on immaculate shelves, lit like starlets on a stage. The Baumans bake their treats daily, so everything is fresh. Their toffee, made in 18-pound batches, is $6 per quarter pound, $11 per half pound and $20 per pound.
The Baumans are sticklers about the quality of their toffee’s four ingredients — sugar, chocolate, almonds and butter — which add up to what they describe as toffee “made to crumble in your mouth and not stick to your teeth!”
Toffee that does stick to your teeth is a big, um, sticking point for them. “Eight out of 10 dentists recommend our toffee for their patients that eat toffee,” jokes Bauman.
His wife chuckles at his joke, but the no-stickiness factor is something the makers of Eileen’s English Toffee take seriously.
“In London, the toffee will break your teeth. They sell it with a small hammer actually,” Bauman says as he piles squares of toffee, brownies and butter toffee cookies onto a glass plate, insisting they be consumed. “I hate to do this to you,” he adds, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. “We’ll start off with toffee, then we’ll go to cookies and brownies.”
Eileen’s is named after Phil’s deceased mother, who was a nurse for the British Women’s Royal Navy during World War II and a hostess and cook who always served dessert with dinner.
She met Phil’s father, Arthur Bauman, in Italy during the war. He was the personal photographer for U.S. Navy Adm. Henry Kent Hewitt at the time. After marrying in Naples, Bauman’s parents settled in Washington state to raise a family.
The toffee recipe is a family one hailing from Camberly, in the County of Surrey, England, where Eileen grew up. It produces a product that avoids being overly sweet, says Phil.
“I’ll see people from London pass my table at shows and say, ‘Oh, we have the best toffee in London,’” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Thirty-six miles south of London in Camberly, Surrey, it crumbles in your mouth and doesn’t stick.’ They try it and often say, ‘This is the best toffee I’ve had in my life.’”
The dainty treat doesn’t appeal just to the ladies. Bauman says men buy their toffee all the time. “And not for their wives either,” he insists. “They buy it for themselves.”
When Bauman explains their toffee’s origins — how his mother used to make it for friends and family in Washington — he slips into the slightest hint of a faux British accent (he was raised in the U.S.). Then he switches to an intense sales pitch that could make a QVC host blush:
“We bake our toffee into the best brownie you’ve ever had in your life, or your money back. We crumble it into our coffee in the morning and our ice cream at night. We even put it in our pancakes and our porridge. We also make beautiful macaroons with salted caramel English toffee and coconut and beautiful dark chocolate.”
Before starting Eileen’s, Bauman sold insurance to U.S. military personnel in Japan and built English gardens in California, Colorado and Richland. He met Lisa, who is from Plainwell, 28 years ago while landscaping homes in Richland and proposed marriage to her over the phone from Japan so they would stop racking up $600 phone bills.
In 2000, Lisa’s brother, Steven DeLoof, built Shagbark Golf Club in Plainwell and the Baumans left Japan to start The Lodge restaurant on its grounds. The restaurant prospered, but when Lisa’s brother died from colon cancer in 2004, the Baumans closed it. They thought about opening a new restaurant, but with liquor licenses costing $250,000, they changed course. Phil went back to landscaping and Lisa worked for her sister, Laurie Pruitt, who owns Folio Salon & Boutique in downtown Kalamazoo.
The couple started making toffee for friends, one of whom commissioned them to make it as a Christmas present. The friend sent it to 100 people all over the U.S.
“That’s really what jump-started this,” Lisa says. “We realized we had something. Those people wanted to order more, and word started spreading.”
“And my back was getting tired of landscaping,” Phil adds.
In 2012, Eileen’s English Toffee was born in the Baumans’ home. A year later, they opened the shop on Gull Road, which has a kitchen where they now make their products.
In addition to the namesake product, the shop carries lemon bars, honey lavender cookies and artisan blended teas. And it also sells gourmet dog treats, which are made by hand and include such wholesome ingredients that a human could safely eat one.
The Baumans share their fully licensed kitchen with Phil’s cousin Ruth Lingbeek, who runs Pick-Me-Up Pies and on a misty morning in late September was busy sending out 20 pies for a wedding. With help from the shop’s other employee, Western Michigan University student Joshua Gray, Lingbeek keeps both businesses running from January through March every year while the Baumans winter in Florida and sell their toffee at craft shows.
In Florida, the Baumans meet people from all over the country who go home in the spring and, much like the rest of their craft show customers, continue ordering toffee all year long.