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Omaha Magazine

Tessa Porter is Nebraska’s Candy Engineer: A Sweet Ride Comes Full Circle

May 23, 2023 03:33PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Tessa Porter Profile Sprinkk Omaha Magazine June 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Growing up in Albion, Nebraska, food scientist Tessa Porter, 35, learned scratch baking from maternal grandmother Ann Kinzer, and an appreciation for natural ingredients from paternal grandmother, Norma Porter. Laying foundations for her father, construction contractor Randy Porter, steeled her work ethic. 

Today, those lessons are infused in her candy development and manufacturing company, Sprinkk. Porter’s lab is based in Omaha, and a soon she’ll open factory in Albion—her hometown as of 2020. She’s since collaborated with Norma on organic fruit snacks that hit store shelves last fall, while her dad is renovating a family-owned building for the new plant. 

“Things really have fallen into place,” Porter said. “It’s not just about the candy, it’s about the people I grew up and worked with and the things I get to create and how it impacts others.”

Curiosity and creativity have taken her far; though she never imagined becoming a real-life Willy Wonka.

“Even as a kid I always had this urge to make things out of nothing, whether cooking, crafting, [or] building,” she said.

She and her sister discovered their love for confectionary in their grandmother’s cafe kitchen, where they were free to experiment with mixing, baking, and entrepreneurship.

“I used to pretend I had a cooking show in her kitchen,” Porter said. “She taught us the right way to mix things and to make all these really rich, indulgent desserts. I had a side business making elaborate cheesecakes and building custom boxes for them.” 

Porter worked as a waitress and cook, serving breakfast to construction crewmates. To forget the hours of hard labor, she recalled, “I used to pretend I was making brownies or candy.”

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Porter weighed studying to be a chef before finding her interests lie in learning, particularly, “what goes into the food we create and  how to make the products that stand on the shelves.”  

“Food science is a combination of art and science,” Porter explained. “The science and the chemistry are how all the molecules interact. But then there’s the art of making it taste delicious. A lot of nuanced things go into it.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree at UNL, she completed her master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was awarded the American Association of Candy Technologists scholarship more than once. Her entry in the male-dominated industry came via the iconic Hershey company. 

“I learned a ton about the nitty-gritty chemistry of candy. I got to work with some really cool innovation there,” she said. 

Mentor Michelle Frame connected her to Ferrara Candy Company in Chicago, where Porter’s R&D team concocted the first truly organic gummy, Black Forest Gummies. She also led the team for NERDS Gummy Clusters, earning awards at the national Sweets & Snacks Expo.

Porter briefly left Ferrara for a sports nutrition company, before being recruited back as head of innovation and technology to integrate brands and lines after several mergers. Having already reached her dream job in her 20s, she admitted, “I realized I need bigger goals.” 

Returning home to shape those goals—and spend time with family—held strong allure.

“Maybe more than making candy, I really love being an aunt. I was missing out on things. I knew I wanted to be closer to family,” Porter said.

Whether in Illinois or Nebraska, Porter is among the vanguard of female candy creators—and she’s excited about what women can bring to the field. 

“My generation is the first bringing femininity to the industry,” she noted. “There are only a few of us that really specialize in candy.

“Big companies can come up with new ideas but there’s really no place to test and manufacture them. Even at Ferrara we had all these great ideas that never saw the light of day because manufacturing ran 24/7.”

That’s when she formulated candy startup Sprinkk, short for Sprinkles. 

“Since I really have a love of creating things, figuring out processes, working in manufacturing—I figured, ‘why don’t I create a flexible contract manufacturing facility where we can do development and run the first manufacturing tests?’” she said. “That way we can validate process-formula on a much smaller, lower-risk scale.”

“Tessa recognizes opportunities, and goes after them,” observed Frame, who admires that Porter helps other small candy makers find their place in the industry.

Proof of concept came with turning grandma Norma’s elderberry syrup into a handcrafted fruit snack.

“Grandma Norma gave me the elderberry, the ginger, the cinnamon, the honey components, and I made that fruit snack happen,” Porter recalled. “I picked some rhubarb out of my mom’s garden and boiled it down. I kept the honey, the cinnamon, and other parts the same and created a strawberry rhubarb gummy. That’s how the two formulas came about.”

Her Hershey mentor, Mark Heim, is a big fan of Porter's Midwestern ethics and openness to learning.

“[She's] curious about everything confectionery,” Heim said, “she not only learns, but strives to understand. Seeing what she was able to do with her grandmother’s treat, turning it into a new product…makes her someone for the industry to keep watching.”

“It’s a little overwhelming how much people like it,” Porter confessed. “People are really surprised by the uniqueness of the flavors. They’re a bit more sophisticated, adult-leaning. The elderberry ginger was a finalist for best new sweet snack at national products expo [in 2023]. That was huge.

“It’s been really rewarding to come back to start Sprinkk and launch a brand together with my grandmother. People love that there’s this organic, real story of our lives were putting into these products and building a candy factory together with my dad.” 

Porter isn’t resting on her laurels, paying her success forward by cooking up ways to blend candy science with STEM education through various platforms. 

“I love to use candy to teach science and to get students excited about science,” she said. “It is a surreal realization—what I get to do and how I get to bring this back to my family and community.” 

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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