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The Case of the Missing Caramels

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 1999; Page F1


Vatore caramels, TWP
The new box touts Vatore's Old Fashion Caramels; Tim Beyer doesn't own the rights to the name "Velati's."
(By Robert A. Reeder – The Post)
Tim Beyer went "down in the dungeon" the hot, dark cellar where his father toiled most of his working life only a handful of times. This was no place for a kid. The boy's Sunday shoes stuck to the sticky, foot-wide, wooden stairs. In those days it was dank beneath the shop at 620 Ninth Street NW. The ceiling was low and the cement floor was tacky as well. Yet the air was sweet and inviting.

He can still picture the 12 six-inch-thick, stone-topped tables throughout the workroom. Of particular interest to young Beyer was the row of eight 20-gallon copper pots set atop gas-fueled burners. That's where things bubbled. There were yard-long wooden paddles propped against the wall next to stainless-steel creamery cans.

Rich, thick, fresh cream was the most important ingredient in Velati's Italian-style caramels.

Sundays were the only time it was quiet at Velati's, the candy store that Tim Beyer's great-great-grandfather opened for business in downtown Washington in 1866. Every other day there was always someone coming in for one type of caramel or another.

Older shoppers preferred the soft squares of melt-in-the-mouth vanilla or chocolate caramel called "crumbly." Kids liked the stick-to-the-teeth chewy-style of caramel best. Salesgirls used a small, metal hammer to shatter the hard "chewy" type of caramel into irregular, bite-sized chunks.

These were sweets with a faithful following. Generations of Washingtonians enjoyed Velati's caramels. They were fresh, local, beloved.

Then, they were gone. The last Velati's caramels were produced by the family in 1987, the year Tim Beyer's father, William (Tim) Beyer, retired.

But three months ago Beyer, 38, a mail carrier in Salisbury, Md., who grew up on Rittenhouse Street in Northwest Washington, started cooking caramel several nights a week, just the way his father taught him. If that means burning his arms on the hot copper kettles, just as his ancestors did so be it. Says Beyer, who eats four pieces of chewy-style caramel, five days a week, as he walks his seven-mile postal route: "I'm here if they want our caramels."

One problem.

Tim Beyer has the original recipe for Velati's caramels. And he has the how-to. But Beyer does not own the name Velati's. That's why he sells his caramels under the name Vatore's. "That's Salvatore without the "Sal," he explains.

It was Salvatore Velati, Tim Beyer's great-great-grandfather, a native of Turin, Italy, who created the recipe for Washington's favorite caramels. "And I'm bringing them back," says Beyer who has converted a screened porch at the rear of his home in Salisbury into a candy kitchen. Slowly the word is spreading. The Velati's old-fashioned, Italian-style caramels are available by mail.

Remember Velati's? Lots of Washingtonians of a certain age do. Regular customers depended upon this venerable shop for a genteel respite after an afternoon of shopping for notions at Neisner Brothers variety store at 12th and G Streets or a new hat at Jelleff's. Kids knew there was a reward for pounding the pavement with mom between the department stores Woodward & Lothrop, Palais Royal, Hecht's, Lansburgh's and Kann's before the trolley ride home. The last shopping stop was Velati's.

Many would recall Pauline Beyer, daughter of the founder, who managed Velati's until her death at age 89 in 1963. Day in, day out she sat at a small, wooden desk in the window near the G Street entrance of the shop. Pauline was said to have run the store with an iron fist. She greeted regular customers, did the paperwork. She was always at the ready to complain, to anyone who would listen, about the ever-rising cost of cream.

The 9th Street display window at the main entrance was Pauline's world as well. The fancy, tasseled, gold satin balloon shades, extensive collection of delicate, footed Dresden candy dishes and framed copy of Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy were her touches. In busy downtown, where one blank or bland facade blended into the next, Velati's European style was exceptional.

The interior of the shop never seemed to change from one decade to the next. Just inside the front entrance was a classic, six-stool soda fountain where mothers and daughters dropped their bags and enjoyed an ice cream soda. There were beautiful, hand-polished wood and glass showcases that ran the length of the shop for the display of 10 varieties of the housemade caramels in chocolate and vanilla, some with nuts, another with a marshmallow core. Tall glass jars with every color of peppermint stick candy lined the counters. Fresh-filled chocolates were made by the P.G. Whunderly Co. of Philadelphia.

Holidays meant crowds.

"Lines would run out the door and all along G Street before Easter. Everybody waiting, hours, just as I did with my mother, to take home a little pink box of caramels," says Washington native and Chevy Chase resident Ann Veith, 73, the mother of 16 children and 44 grandchildren.

More than 1,500 pounds of caramels per day were produced beginning on Dec. 15 and continuing through Christmas Eve. Crews worked 12- to 18-hour days, seven days a week at holiday times. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Kim Novak and Helen Hayes were said to be devoted customers.

The beginning of the end of Velati's was 1972. That's when the trustees of the estate of Pauline Beyer decided to sell the property to a group of developers to make way for downtown renewal. The site was cleared, the present YWCA building built. But the caramel making continued.

That year Velati's became a tenant of the nearby flagship Woodward & Lothrop department store at 11th and F Streets NW. The candy shop was on the main level. Great-grandsons William Beyer and his brother Robert manned the wooden paddles in the fifth-floor candy kitchen. Five years later Woodward & Lothrop bought the candy business but William Beyer continued making the caramels until his retirement in 1987.

Shortly thereafter, Woodies pulled the plug on the candy operation. The Velati name was later sold in the department store's 1995 bankruptcy proceedings and Tim Beyer is not sure who owns the name today.

The fresh caramels, made without preservatives, had only a 10-day shelf life. But Velati's had an illustrious history of 121 years. And that's precisely why Tim Beyer wants to bring the caramels back.

He is starting out in his humble candy kitchen a simple workspace in stainless steel and white tile. It's next to family dining room, overlooking an in-ground pool, in the house he shares with his wife, Janet, and their three children on the outskirts of Salisbury. The Beyers moved to Salisbury to be close to the ocean beaches.

"I'm still at the basement level, just getting going," says Beyer as he pours fresh Delaware cream from the Lewes Dairy, corn syrup, sugar and quarter-sized disks of bittersweet baking chocolate into a copper caldron. The fire is on. He's stirring. The whole business begins to bubble.

Here comes the doneness test. At exactly the right moment Beyer plunges his bare hand first into a bowl of ice water and then into the molten caramel. One-two he grabs a handful of the hot stuff. Then, back into the ice water. (A candy thermometer would do the trick as well.) He rolls the candy around, between his fingers, into a ball. He nods once. Twice. It's done.

Next, Beyer dumps the batch onto a marble slab to cool. A few minutes later, fudge-like caramels are ready to eat. It's the soft, crumbly kind.

This fifth-generation candy cooker says he does not "entertain thoughts of making it big in caramels." Thus far the 20 to 30 pounds of Vatore's caramels he produces each week have been sold to friends and former customers of Velati's that the family has stayed in contact with. He dreams of owning a small candy shop someday. He believes he can deliver both the mail and his caramels to customers.

Still, his parents, who now make their home in Silver Spring, have mixed feelings about their son's caramel venture.

"He's so enthusiastic. But I don't know. Timmy is letting himself in for a fall," says his mom, Joan Beyer. She's cautious. "He expects too much. It worries me," she says.

Dad is all for it. "I like the idea, as long as he does it slowly," says the proud former caramel king. "I've tried his caramels. He knows when they're done. They're as good as mine."

Tim Beyer has his own concerns. He knows his caramels are just the consistency they should be. It's the name. Will the name change work? Will old-time customers recognize the pink box with the big "V"? Maybe. Maybe not.

"I just want to carry on the tradition," he says, offering a sample. The crumbly variety of these Italian-style caramels has a sugary texture, rather than the elastic texture normally associated with caramel. Some people find them addictive. That's what Beyer is counting on.

Says Beyer, "I enjoy cooking it. That's all. And maybe, one day, my kids will want to too."

Vatore's Italian Caramels, P.O. Box 2861, Salisbury, Md. 21802-2861; call 410-341-3177. A one-pound box of vanilla caramels (crumbly or chewy) is $8. Shipping and handling is $5 for 1 to 2 pounds.


© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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