By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 21, 2007 at 5:30 AM

A lot of college students do extracurricular activities, but few of them invent sweets in their spare time. That’s because few of them are John Osmanski, 26, who graduated in May 2006 with a degree in biomedical engineering.

An inveterate entrepreneur, one of Osmanski’s hobbies during his four years at Milwaukee School of Engineering was day trading. He also had a number of projects simmering, too, including a storybook explaining calculus to kids. But his sweetest venture was “Crackheads,” white and dark chocolate covered espresso beans in an eye-catching, almost retro little box, that can be purchased around town.

“The candy thing really stuck because initially when I was in my sophomore year of college,” Osmanski explains, “I was reading this book on how to put yourself through school, how to make some money and one idea was making candy and selling it at a local fair. And I really liked that idea because I love eating candy and when people are eating candy, they’re always happy.”

Osmanski is a savvy enough businessman to know, however, that you don’t make money if you eat too much of your own product before it gets boxed.

“Well, I was (worried about that), so I chose a product that I don’t normally ingest,” he says. “I don’t normally ingest a lot of caffeine. I’m very sensitive (to it). So, I’m pretty good, I don’t eat too many of them.”

Anyway, Osmanski, who had run the entire business before partnering with Jeffrey Plitt last year, hardly had time to nosh with his full slate of classes at MSOE -- which is no cakewalk -- and handling all the details of making, packaging and marketing the ever-more-successful Crackheads.

Luckily for him, school turned out to be a place where he could perfect Crackheads.

“I was able to use the laser cutter (at MSOE) and make my first dies for this,” he says. “I used their facilities for my own creative projects, which is what I really like to do.

“Professor Ann-Marie Nickel, I had organic chemistry with her, and we had a lab where we extract caffeine from tea leaves and so she let me do an additional lab where I extracted caffeine out of (Crackheads), so I was able to do a rough caffeine calculation. She was always very pro doing new things. There were a number of people at that school that were very helpful with pursuing ideas and potential places to go.”

Fellow students also proved to be a perfect test-marketing group, he says. And Milwaukee as a whole, he figured, served as a good proving ground.

“Milwaukee is generally a pretty conservative marketplace,” Osmanski says, “so I thought if Crackheads will do OK here, I’m pretty sure the East Coast, West Coast will pick it up pretty easily. And Chicago, as well.”

Although he began by making Crackheads in his kitchen and bribing friends with beer and pizza to help fill boxes, the candy is now made by a Midwestern confectioner. Osmanski, who is currently talking to a Milwaukee candy maker about moving the production here, still packages the candy himself.

“The whole idea is to keep this a Milwaukee thing, a Wisconsin thing,” Osmanski says.

And he says that’s becoming a bigger and bigger proposition, now that his distribution is getting wider.

“We’ve started to go through distributors and now there’s a little bit more press and some larger online retailers are starting to carry them. A lot of businesses have approached me from there. I’ve been selling a little bit to the West Coast, in California, on the East Coast, and it’s been starting to open up in the Midwest a little bit more.”

The success of the tasty, jolt-providing -- and natural (“they’re not organic but they’re minimally processed,” Osmanski notes) -- Crackheads has Osmanki and Plitt polishing some new ideas, too. In addition to a honey taffy and a caffeinated taffy (“caffy!”) there are two variations on Crackheads aimed at specific markets.

“One is for motorcycle enthusiasts and it’s called Hog Chow and the tagline is ‘cross country caffeine.’ It’s a lifestyle product for Harley riders,” Osmanski says. “And there’s another candy that’s marketed toward wine drinkers and called Wall Street Options. Similar product, as well, just a slightly different tint on the quality of the chocolate and the coffee bean is what we’re looking at now.“

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.