WASHINGTON – Step inside the Original Velatis Caramel Company, an artisan, small batch candy establishment just outside the nation’s capital, and your senses whip into a swirl, as they beat a path toward the sweet stuff that draw you helplessly like a magnet to the display case. It’s there, where a pillowy layer of tantalizing aroma hangs, you’ll spy old-world signature treats like American chewy-style caramels and truffles, sea salt turtles, and Belgian chocolates.
The store’s exuberant co-owner, Amy Servais, stood ramrod straight at the counter, where she spoke of another little touch that adds to the unique aura. Customers, she said, who have old Velatis candy boxes are invited to donate them. In exchange, “I’ll send them candy!” she promised.
The kitchen, accented by 25-pound bags of Domino sugar, is where the art and soul of the family business resides. Servais stood ramrod straight over one of the three stainless steel cooking pots. As a co-owner along with other family members, Servais is intimately involved in every facet of the business. That runs the gamut, from crunching numbers to making sure the finished chocolate “when you break it in two, has a nice snap.” At that point, she sounded a more modest note. “I am not a trained pastry chef,” she said flatly. “I am a cook. I try to find people who have really good cooking skills. “It takes a lot of science I really didn’t anticipate.”
Servais affirmed the list of essential ingredients that combine to produce caramel is short: white granulated sugar, cream – “not milk,” chocolate, low fructose corn syrup, and, depending on the order, pecans and other nuts. Servais laughed as she recalled looking over the instructions for one early caramel recipe. “It said dip your hand in cold water, then stick it in a batch of hot water to see” if the candy was ready. “No way I’m sticking my hand in boiling water that can reach 200 plus degrees!” she feigned protest in a burst of laughter.
When Servais was learning to cook, she used a wooden spoon to stir the ingredients in the cooking pot. Stirring is necessary, she said, in order to coax the sugar into melting. Nowadays, stainless steel has replaced copper pots, and manual stirring is a relic of the past. “We have automatic pot stirrers. It’s pretty amazing.” Nowadays, she added, there are also alarms and temperature controls that monitor each batch. Typically, from cooking to cooling requires up to two hours per batch of ingredients.
Velatis packs deep roots in the region. The candy company was started in Richmond, VA, in the 1850s by Salvator Velati, a native of Turin, Italy. The store was lost to a fire when Union General Ulysses S. Grant seized the Confederate capital during the Civil War. Later, in 1866, Velatis moved north to the District.
Velatis closed up shop, sold its trademark and secret recipes to the Woodward & Lothrop Company, a locally grown department store. Woody’s continued the Velatis tradition, crafting caramels in its kitchens and selling them at its in-store candy counters across the DC area during the holidays.
Eventually, the trademark and Velatis recipes were sold to J.C. Penny, the company that bought all of Woody’s assets. Penny’s began selling off portions of its purchase.
Enter the Servais family, sixth-generation Washingtonians, who claimed a spot as one of the bidders for the valuable Velatis trademark and secret recipes. The family won the bid, putting the crowning touches on Amy Servais’ dream of running her own candy operation. The former retail sales executive began tweaking the recipes using copper pots and classic cooking techniques.
Servais and her eight employees labor as a team, striving to meet important sales markers at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. “During the week before Christmas,” Servais reported, “I go through 15 to 17 cases of cream in a week – and I’m still running out of stuff!”
Servais has a knack for unspooling offbeat stories that speak directly to the store’s lasting appeal. One of them, she recalled, occurred one year in the runup to Christmas. “We had a young man order candy online, hoping to get it in time,” for the holiday. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t the only order he placed. The next one, she said, featured him wandering into the shop. “He never lived in DC. He flew in from Chicago, came into the store, ordered 25 boxes of just about every flavor, and had the cab waiting. Nor, she emphasized, did he bother to cancel his online order. “He still lives in Chicago and he still orders.”