JJ Rademaekers, Cocomel
JJ Rademaekers' company, JJ's Sweets, recently launched Cocomel Bites.

NEW YORK — JJ Rademaekers, a scientist, professional musician and self-described foodie, began experimenting with candy making eight years ago, inspired by a strange and intriguing dream.

“I was at a career crossroads in 2009,” he recalled. “I was considering my next move and had a dream one night where I found myself in this kooky candy man’s laboratory, and in that laboratory there were these delicious, innovative, better-for-you candy creations that inspired me...

“It was unwittingly a piece of inspiration that brought together my past. I sometimes say that candy is this perfect blend of science, creativity and my love of food.”

What followed was months of tinkering in the kitchen, crafting new and innovative confections, including a dairy-free caramel made with coconut milk.

Cocomel caramels, JJ's Sweets
Cocomels brand of coconut milk caramels is sold in more than 3,500 stores nationwide.

“I’m lactose intolerant, so I was looking for a caramel that didn’t include dairy,” Mr. Rademaekers told Food Business News. “I’m also a big fan of Asian cuisine, and coconut milk is one of those ingredients that I just love using in a variety of ways. You can use it in savory or sweet, and when you use it in sweet, it just provides this delicious creaminess because it has the coconut oil that provides some fat content. I deduced that it may work well as a dairy substitute in caramel, and I was right.”

He began peddling his premium treats at the local farmers market in Boulder, Colo. Today his Cocomels brand of coconut milk caramels is sold in more than 3,500 stores nationwide. The caramels, which are U.S.D.A. organic certified and Non-GMO Project verified, feature flavors such as espresso, vanilla, sea salt and original.

The latest innovation from Mr. Rademaekers’ company, JJ’s Sweets, is Cocomel Bites, featuring bite-size coconut milk caramels wrapped in dark chocolate and packaged in resealable pouches. Flavors include vanilla and sea salt, which won a new product award at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 25-27 in New York.

Cocomel Bites, JJ's Sweets
Cocomel Bites feature bite-size coconut milk caramels wrapped in dark chocolate and packaged in resealable pouches.

“The Cocomel Bites had not even launched yet, so to come out of the gates with an award prior to us even launching the product was a great vote of confidence,” Mr. Rademaekers said. “I think the Bites are going to open up some new distribution opportunities for us.”

Product development at JJ’s Sweets is guided by three criteria. Products must be delicious, innovative and produced in a mindful way.

“We try to be mindful in making our products better for you and better for the environment,” he said. “We’re looking to put products out there that incorporate a level of mindfulness into them.”

Cocomels hits the sweet spot of several broader food industry trends. Today’s consumers seek products with recognizable ingredients, premium or handcrafted positioning and free-from attributes.

Cocomel caramels, JJ's Sweets
Cocomels caramels are U.S.D.A. organic certified and Non-GMO Project verified.

“Certainly a core consumer for us is the dairy-free and vegan consumer, but our product quality is such that many of our consumers are not vegan or dairy-free,” Mr. Rademaekers said.

Future innovation may expand the Cocomels brand into new categories.

“Cocomel is interesting in the sense that it is as versatile as caramel,” he said. “As you think about the applications that are available with caramel, we can do the same thing with Cocomel, albeit in our dairy-free way.

“It’s all on the table.”