May 23, 1988 12:00 PM

The sun was hot, the surf was up, and Gail Robinson was having a dandy time on her 1984 Hawaiian vacation. Except for one small matter. “The only thing missing from this beach,” she told her husband, Shelly, “is caramel apples.” Ah, but of course; Hawaii without caramel apples is like Sweden without rigatoni. Recalls Robinson, 47: “I spent that night in the hotel bathroom writing down my ideas.”

Back home in her Chicago kitchen, Robinson, a former diet counselor, began to experiment. Trouble was, “I had absolutely no idea how to make caramel,” she confesses. Her daughter Cory saw the problem as somewhat larger in scope. “It had been years,” she says, “since Mom had cooked anything at all.” Not to be denied, Robinson tested hundreds of recipes over the next 12 months before concocting a caramel that would stick to both apples and chocolate. Naming her product Mrs. Prindable’s Hand Dipped Apples (after a woman she had once known in England), she then went looking for customers.

One of her first was the local Neiman-Marcus store, which ordered three cases. Then Chicago’s Hyatt Regency asked for 1,400 apples to be delivered in five days for a convention. Working 18-hour shifts, Cory, 27, used a sledgehammer to break 10-pound chocolate slabs into pieces that the melter could manage. Daughter Michelle, 25, stirred and dipped. Shelly, 50, came home at night from his auto-parts business to label and bag, while Gail decorated and packed.

That first year, the Robinsons sold 18,000 caramel apples, hired their first employee-they now have 20-and moved into industrial space in Skokie, III. Now, halfway through their third year, they sell 1,000 apples a day in various flavors at $12 each, offer special variations (such as their Papal Apple, which celebrated the Pope’s visit) and market them in upscale stores nationwide. How many calories in one of her apples? The former diet adviser couldn’t care less.

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