Justin Fox Burks
The sweet smell of warm, melted chocolate lingered throughout Dinstuhl’s candy kitchen on this particular late-summer morning. A small crew of candy makers had just finished hand-dipping more than 40 pounds of the company’s coveted chocolate-covered strawberries — the last to be sold for the season — and had moved on to its first batch of caramel apples, to kick off fall. Nearly 200 Granny Smith apples received individual special treatment: a dip in creamy caramel, a break to set, a dip in a bowl of silky smooth chocolate, a gentle twirl to remove the excess, an extra drizzle of milk chocolate painted around the base. The hum of a conveyor belt purred in the background as bits of buttery, hand-made toffee took a ride to the enrober (a machine that churns out a flowing fountain of ooey-gooey chocolate goodness, used for coating a variety of Dinstuhl’s delicacies) before each piece got its own hand-sprinkling of finely crushed nuts.
Though some Memphians may have never stepped foot into the candy kitchen (which you can, twice a year; read on), the Dinstuhl’s name is surely a familiar one. Now in its fifth generation as a family business, the company has produced fine candies, like its famous Cashew Crunch and Chocolate Pecan Fudge, in this city since 1902 when Charles Martin Dinstuhl Sr. opened up shop at 64 North Main Street. While a lot has changed in Memphis in the 114 years since Dinstuhl’s first served its sweet samplings downtown, the care that goes into hand-making its products has not.
A typical morning in the 11,000-square-foot facility at 5280 Pleasant View Road has about a dozen employees in the kitchen, carefully hand-crafting, molding, and packaging a variety of sugary treats to be sold throughout the company’s three retail locations — on Pleasant View, in the Laurelwood Shopping Center, and in Germantown — and on its online store. A far cry from the original 400-square-foot shop on Main that featured an old-fashioned soda fountain and a small selection of candies at its counter, Dinstuhl’s kitchen today yields as many as 1,000 pounds of candy a day during peak season. Though some equipment, like the enrober, wasn’t used in the early days, many of the recipes and processes remain the same. An old-fashioned fire mixer purchased in 1915 is still used today to melt and mix ingredients for fudge, fondant, and creams, and the chocolate nut clusters are still dipped and formed by hand.
Rebecca Dinstuhl, a cheery woman with her own family history in candy making — her grandfather started the Alabama-based Saxon’s Candy Kitchen — married into the Dinstuhl family. She joined the business in 1970; her then-husband Gary Dinstuhl was a fourth generation candy-maker. Today, she sits at the helm as the company’s president. Early on, Rebecca worked mostly in retail sales and packaging but went on to learn the ins and outs of product purchasing and office operations. Through the years, Dinstuhl’s has evolved — and has become a nationally renowned entity, having been recognized by People and Taste of the South magazines, and named “Best Fudge in America” by Cooking with Paula Deen. But in 2003, the business nearly shut its doors.
On top of a lengthy financial crisis, a storm hit: Hurricane Elvis. “It was that summer of 2003,” Rebecca says. “We lost power for an extended period of time and lost inventory. And that was [almost] the finishing blow.”
But longtime Dinstuhl’s fans Judy and Larry Moss stepped in to purchase the company, bringing in their daughter Marissa, who today is the company’s operations manager, and keeping Rebecca and Gary’s son, Andrew Dinstuhl, on staff to manage production in the kitchen as a fifth-generation candy maker. “Larry made a commitment to maintain Dinstuhl’s; he respected the quality and the traditions, so he did not make a tremendous amount of changes,” Rebecca says. “It was a merging of the two families. Larry Moss saved the company.”
The Sweet Spot
It didn’t take long for Dinstuhl’s to bounce back full force. In 2006, the team was recruited by the NFL to make 7,000 truffle pops for the Super Bowl. “They were so popular that we were asked to make them for the Kentucky Derby and the NBA Finals,” says Rebecca. Dinstuhl’s truffle pops were in such a spotlight that they were featured on QVC, along with the Cashew Crunch, a buttery cashew toffee coated with flecks of coconut. Other custom orders have included chocolate Cinderella slippers for the Cinderella Ball in Washington, and turndown mints for the American Queen Steamboat Company. When I visited the kitchen, employees in the chocolate molding room were preparing plump Santa Clauses, about a foot high, with hand-painted (in white chocolate) embellishments, for Macy’s. “We’re shipping over 350 of them to Macy’s stores throughout the country for the holidays,” she says.
Dinstuhl’s also produces officially licensed Elvis Presley chocolates — specially wrapped Elvis bars, and molded chocolates in the shape of compact discs and guitars. “Doing the Elvis chocolates is always a great pride,” Rebecca says. Perfectly fitting, since Elvis was known to special-order Dinstuhl’s deliveries to Graceland. “When he was in town, he would call and order two five-pound boxes to be delivered to the mansion so there would be plenty of sweet treats for everybody.”
Candy-making master Tommy Washington has worked for Dinstuhl’s since 1962, beginning at the original Main Street location; today he spends his work days in the Pleasant View candy kitchen. He recalls making one of those deliveries to Graceland. “When you got there, they’d meet you at the door and carry you down into the den where he was,” Washington says. “I met Elvis; sure did.” Not one to be star-struck, Washington says it was “just like another day.”
At 80 years old, Washington is a focused, hard-working man. Early on, he learned Dinstuhl’s special recipes and has since perfected them. On the Thursday morning I cashed in my golden ticket (sorry, couldn’t resist a Willy Wonka reference), Washington, in a powdered-sugar dusted apron, multi-tasked. Making mint discs, he’d pour the candy mixture through a funnel of sorts, and with a tap of the hand, perfectly rounded dots plopped out onto a sheet to set. Next, he moved on to cutting caramels with a device that looked a bit like a paper cutter, separating a sheet of soft caramel into bite-sized square chews. Afterward, he unmolded white mint bells that had been sprinkled with edible glitter, a special order for what must have been a wedding party, before walking over to the enrober with the biggest block of chocolate I’d ever seen and hammering a chunk of it off into the melting compartment.
Washington’s tenure has stretched over five decades, but he’s not the only devoted Dinstuhl’s employee. Packaging supervisor Camilla Slack just celebrated her 30th anniversary; Cathy Morris, package designer, has been working for Dinstuhl’s for 36 years, since she was just 15 years old. Jesse Brookins, the man who carefully dressed the first fall batch of caramel apples, has been with the company for 12 years.
“Our employees are wonderful; it’s like a family,” says co-owner Judy Moss. “We’ve got a lot of people who are related to each other that work for us: mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, brother and sister; so a lot of our employees really are family. And I get to work in a chocolate factory with my youngest daughter, Marissa, who puts a smile on my face every day.”
Kid in a Candy Store
Andrew Dinstuhl, today a 37-year-old, bright-eyed candy maker, grew up under the wings of his father and grandfather in the Dinstuhl’s kitchen, literally a kid in a candy store. Today, he’s a chief candy maker and manages production in the kitchen, but he didn’t always want to follow in his forefathers’ footsteps. “Being a fifth generation in any kind of business, it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about the actual business when it’s been around for so long,” he says. “It occupies family dinners and family time with business discussions. The candy part I really liked a lot being a kid; I was the envy of all my friends. But having our busy times during the holiday seasons, which families usually get together for, our family is always working overtime during those times. I think that’s why I was a little disgruntled.”
As a child, Andrew was interested in making candy and “wanted to do what all the grown-ups like Tommy and my grandfather were doing,” he says, “but of course my grandfather wanted me to do a lot of the tasks that they didn’t have time for, like making boxes for shipping or separating nuts for a project, so I’d get bored, and then I’d run around and cause trouble.”
Andrew recalls a specific incident, while an advertising production crew was in the Dinstuhl’s kitchen for a shoot in the 1980s, where he couldn’t help but make mess of things. “They wanted my brother and me to make a batch of Cashew Crunch, which I had no idea what I was doing back then, and they wanted my brother stirring the kettle while I added the nuts,” he says. “I remember they said ‘Look up’ while I was pouring the nuts in the batch and I ended up pouring them all over, anywhere but in the pot where they were supposed to go, so I caused quite a mess, and they didn’t really enjoy that too much.”
Through high school, Andrew helped in the kitchen after school and on holidays, but upon graduation, he left Memphis, thinking he’d put the candy factory days behind him. Andrew went to college at Auburn, with a major in business. “I was considering anything different,” he says. “But it’s funny, you grow up hating something and then you go out in the real world and realize how fortunate you are and how nice it is for your family to have something like that, so of course, I gravitated back.”
When Andrew returned to work for Dinstuhl’s in 2002, he “did a little sales and a little bit of everything,” he says, “and now I’m making candy with Tommy in the back. That’s actually what I enjoy doing the most.”
Watching the Dinstuhl’s team in action, it’s easy to see that they enjoy what they do. And since 1981, Dinstuhl’s has offered the public a chance witness it. Twice a year, the candy kitchen hosts an open house, a free tour that gives people the opportunity to watch the magic happen, and to try a variety of samples along the way.
Until a few years ago, a holiday open house was held just once a year in November, but now Dinstuhl’s opens its doors for a spring open house as well. Last April, hundreds lined up for a tour of the kitchen, which was decorated, aptly, with colorful paper flowers, butterflies, and bright green trees. A Wonka-esque chocolate fountain, with a cardboard cutout of Oompa Loompas at its peak, greeted visitors at the entrance, where cups of lemonade and balloons were handed out to excited little ones.
During the tour, Andrew, Tommy, Rebecca, and the rest of the Dinstuhl’s team made batches of brittles, chocolate-covered fruits, and mints, for the eager crowd. “People don’t realize what goes into making our candy and that it’s all done by hand,” Judy Moss says. “We do [the open houses] so people can come in and see how it’s done; and they can taste the candy. People who came as children years and years ago are bringing their own children now, and it’s become a family tradition.”
Dinstuhl’s is hosting its winter open house, with Santa as a special guest, on Sunday, November 13th, from noon to 4 p.m. The spring open house will be held March 26, 2017. We’ve all got a golden ticket. Make sure to mark your calendar to cash yours in and get an insider’s glimpse of this historic Memphis wonderland of candy.