Photographs by David Stuck
Step inside the Original Velatis Caramel Company, an artisan, small batch candy maker in downtown Silver Spring, and your senses whip into a swirl, beating a path for the confections that beckon from the display case. It’s there you will spy exquisitely crafted signature treats like American chewy-style caramels and truffles, sea salt turtles and Belgian chocolates.
Collectively, they shape a composite sketch of the menu of old-fashioned delicacies.
The store’s exuberant co-owner, Amy Servais, stands erect at the front counter, where she speaks of another little touch that adds to the unique aura. Customers, she says, who have old Velatis candy boxes are invited to donate them. In exchange, “I’ll send them candy!” she promises. I ask them what [candy] they prefer.”
So far, her inventory includes orange and blue containers, many of them 100 years old. Note: She’s still on the prowl for classic tin boxes. This personal touch illumines the shop’s culture of embracing customers as family.
The kitchen, accented by yellow, 25-pound bags of sugar, is where the art and soul of the family business resides. Servais hovers 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 sounds a more modest note. “I am not a trained pastry chef,” she says flatly. “I am a cook. I try to find people who have really good cooking skills.”
Everybody wants to make chocolate, but it isn’t that easy. Just a small change in the temperature or humidity, she warns, can alter the quality of the candy. “It takes a lot of science I really didn’t anticipate.”
Servais affirms 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 laughs as she recalls 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 feigns protest in a burst of laughter.
Stirring is necessary
When Servais was learning to cook, she used a wooden spoon to stir the ingredients in the cooking pot. Stirring is necessary, she says, in order to coax the sugar into melting. Nowadays, stainless steel has replaced copper pots, where manual stirring is a relic of the past.
“We have automatic pot stirrers. It’s pretty amazing.”
Nowadays, she adds, 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.
For marshmallow confections, Servais notes, she buys sheets of ready-made marshmallows from a distributor in Oregon. Instead of using tiny, “pillowy” marshmallows, they’re “formed in quarter-inch sheets. We lay it on top of the freshly poured caramel.”
Along with the Silver Spring location, there’s a Velatis inside the Pentagon and another at the Mark Center in Alexandria, a mixed-use development and installation for military contractors. Those outlets are accessible only to those on official government business.
Velatis packs deep roots in the region. The candy company was started in Richmond in the 1850s by Salvator Velati, a native of Turin, Italy. The store was lost to a fire when Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant seized the Confederate capital during the Civil War. Later, in 1866, Velatis moved north to the District, reopening for business at 620 9th Street NW. Delicious imagery on the store’s web site sets the scene: “Imagine hoop-skirted ladies and gentlemen in high collars traveling by carriage or streetcar to pick up their sweet treats.” Word of Velatis soon spread about the shop among those “with a little bit of change and a sweet tooth,” the backstory concluded.
In the early 1970s, the nation’s capital found itself in the throes of the first leg of Metro subway construction. The historic infrastructure project damaged the foundation of the original Velatis on 9th Street.
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 Washington area during the holidays.
In 1995, Woody’s closed its doors. The next year, the trademark and Velatis recipes were sold by 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. In the end, the family won the bid, putting the crowning touches on Amy Servais’ dream of running her own candy operation.
Servais, a former retail sales executive, began tweaking the recipes, while still using copper pots and classic cooking processes. Velatis was reborn as a Florida-based online enterprise, with an eye on returning to Washington. With online sales growing, the company moved to a kitchen near Richmond. In 2009, it opened the Silver Spring location. Servais’ parents, who, for years had a hands-on role in the operation, are retired in Richmond. Her sister manages the Pentagon store.
Servais, now in her mid-50s and a Silver Spring resident, is a D.C. native who spent most of her formative days in California and Texas, where her dad worked in the computer industry. She earned a marketing degree from the University of South Florida, which led to a career in retail sales. But that had a shelf life. “I was tired of working for other people,” she recalls. “It had its pros and cons.”
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 reports, “I go through 15 to 17 cases of cream in a week—and I’m still running out of stuff!”
One staff member, Autumn Wilson, said learning the art of candy making, along with other aspects of the business, sparks joy. The bonus, she explained, is working in an atmosphere that promotes light-heartedness and teamwork. It more than makes up what she left behind in her Wisconsin hometown. “It makes me feel like I’m home.”
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 D.C. 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.”
For Linda Hall, the mere mention of Velatis conjures a wave of emotion. Hall, who grew up in Bethesda and now teaching online nursing from her home in Rapid City, S.D., used to work at the store.
“You walk in, and it feels like family. You smell the chocolate. That’s the essence.”
Hall, 80, said her one of her favorites involves starting with a base of fresh toffee and nuts and drenching it with dark chocolate. The other features caramel, “very much a turn-of-the century candy, sugary or chewy. Bite into that. It’s like biting into your grandmother’s fudge.”
Being her own boss, Servais asserted, represents the realization of a long-held dream. The responsibilities intertwined with being self-employed are part of the overall pleasure of doing something she loves. “I’ve got to balance everything. Find your accountant. Be able to do your own marketing. Whatever it is, it’s all on you.”
It’s the flip side of doing business that hits her sweet spot, her craving to create. “It’s all about the reaction the customer has when they taste the candy,” she chimed. “The memories, the happy times. I’m not doing anything earth-shattering. I’m trying to be a happy place.”
Vanilla Ice Cream Custard
Velatis confections wouldn’t be nearly as good if they weren’t made from time-honored secret recipes. “But we do make an ice cream for the summer,” Servais says. “I thought this might be nice.”
1 1/4 Cups Sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons Vanilla Extract
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
24 oz Evaporated milk
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
6 cups whole milk
Start by adding the egg yolks only and sugar to a medium mixing bowl. Stir together until it is combined well.
In a sauce pan, heat the all of the milks together over medium heat.
Gradually whisk in the egg & sugar mixture carefully (you don’t want to scramble the eggs).
Return the combined mixture to the heat until it reaches 165 degrees. Remove from heat.
Add & mix in the vanilla extract.
Pour the custard base into a covered container and store in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day stir your custard and pour into an ice cream maker until done.
Top with Velatis Caramel Sauce & Amy’s Toffee crumbles.
Velatis Caramel Sauce
Take a pound of Velatis caramels where it is plain Vanilla or Sea Salt & mix in a sauce pan over medium heat with 1 1/2 cups of cream until smooth.
Pour over ice cream & add Amy’s Toffee crumbles.
Order online or stop in. www.velatis.com