Terry Opalek spent about 20 years working in the non-profit industry, doing membership developmentand thought he'd stay in that field for the rest of his life.
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But then, through an inner urging, as he described, he took a class, The Artist's Way, based on the book of the same name by Julia Cameron. It was a 12-week course at a Unity Church in Chicago, "that reconnecting with your creative power, your creative energy," he said.
Opalek kept a journal, updating it every morning with constant thoughts.
"After months, it was clear in my [journal] writing that I should leave my job," he said.
Opalek thought leaving his job was crazy, he now admits.
Ultimately, he did quit, "and I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn't quit to take another job, or make toffee," he said. "I started doing creative thinking, such as writing and painting."
Nine months later, during the Christmas holiday season, Opalek sold his toffee, based on a family recipe.
"It took off like crazy; people absolutely loved it," Opalek said.
And so was born, Terry's Toffee, now 11 years old.
"There's no way I ever envisioned this. Toffee was never even on my radar," Opalek said. "In so many ways, I now feel my life is fuller, richer … and I just feel like I'm really living my life doing what I'm doing.
"What's more rewarding to me is, the connection. And the toffee is the vehicle."
Opalek, the company president, and his life partner, Michael Frontier, who is the vice president, run the Chicago-based entity. The toffee is an award-winning sweet that has earned the "extraordinary" ranking from Zagat.
Terry's Toffee has been a treat for such stars as the queen of England, the Obama family, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former shah of Iran's wife, Maria Shriver, Samuel L. Jackson and countless other celebrities. The toffee has been given away to celebrities at the Academy Awards show for 10 years.
In a contrasting setting, Terry's Toffee also is given to patients in hospice.
"It is so humbling and touching to me, how far we've come," said Opalek, 57, who lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood.
"Michael and I feel very strongly about giving back, and we give back to hundreds of organizationscharities that help rescue dogs, to charities that help the homeless, breast cancer [charities], the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and more."
In fact, Terry's Toffee has been a participant for about the past seven years in AFC's annual World of Chocolate fundraiserand was the People's Choice award-winner at the 2013 event.
And about a week after claiming the AFC honor, Terry's Toffee won an award for its packaging from the North American Paperboard Packaging Competition.
Plus, 2013 was the company's best financial year.
"As I always tell my staff, 'I don't care if a person is buying one piece of toffee, or 1,000 boxes of toffee, everyone is to be treated with graciousness, rightfulness,'" Opalek said.
The company produces about 1,200 pounds of toffee each and every week"a far cry from when we were making it, one pound at a time, on my stove," Opalek said.
There are 17 flavors of gourmet toffee, plus toffee-covered popcorn "that has taken off like crazy," he said.
Terry's also offers toffee-topped biscottis as well as six different flavors of toffee-infused ice cream.
The top-selling flavor of toffee is McCall's Classic, named after his grandmother, blended with California almonds, coated in milk chocolate and dusted with Georgia pecans.
"Everything came full-circle about a years ago," Opalek said. "I met the daughter of Julia Cameron, who came into our store, introduced herself, said she was getting married, and wanted Terry's Toffee as a wedding flavorincluding for her [celebrity] parents."
She knew, through the company's website, that her mom's book was one of Opalek's favorite things. He told her: "Your mom's book isn't just one of my favorite things; it's the reason Terry's Toffee is here today."
Her eyes welled up.
His did, too.
"That was just really, really cool," he said.
Opalek and Frontier, who have been partners for about 24 years, are planning to get married this year.
Although Terry's Toffee is now available at 80 stores across the United States, the lone Terry's Toffee store, 1117 W. Grand Ave. For more information, call 312-733-2700.