Artisanal Putney candy maker closes its doors
PUTNEY — It's the end of a sweet era in Putney. The Vermonter Candy Co. has delivered its last maple and nut brittle, a casualty of rising costs, said Carolyn Handy, the second generation of the Handy family to own and operate the artisanal candy company.
The business was founded in 1950 in Dorset and moved to Putney the next year, Handy said. Her father, Herbert "Stick" Handy, and her grandfather, came up with the recipe for the maple-flavored candy, which was famous for its delicate brittle and its lack of preservatives, even back in the 1950s.
Handy took over the family candy business in 2004, returning to Putney to continue the family tradition, which has been making various nut and maple candy brittles on West Hill since her parents bought the former Putney School laundry and converted it to a candy factory and their home. She said her father and his employees made the maple brittles 50 times a year, with her father spending the rest of the time delivering the fragile brittle to gift shops and stores all over Vermont and accounts in other states. She said since the Handy brittle is so thin, it is prone to breakage, and the family always decided to deliver the candy personally, rather than pack it up and ship it.
Handy literally grew up in the candy business, sitting on a high stool and watching her father and his crew make the candy. Her first job was to help clean up afterwards, sweeping the floor, and eventually she helped make the candy, running the business for the past 14 years with a crew of loyal part-time employees, continuing the personal door-to-door deliveries she said maintained the brittle's integrity.
"Tops in Brittle since 1950," the distinctive boxes proclaimed.
Her paternal grandfather's family was in the chocolate candy business in Springfield, Mass., in the 1920s, she said, so when her father got out of the service in the late 1940s, he started making peanut brittle to make ends meet. He had been laid off from the Dorset restaurant where he had been employed during the tourist season. When the restaurant closed for the winter, the owner let him use the kitchen. He started making brittle and started selling it all over Vermont. When the restaurant reopened, her dad didn't want to give up his fledgling candy business and The Vermonter was born in earnest. The distinctive, old-fashioned logo was designed by the boyfriend of an aunt, she said, and has been unchanged for the past 68 years.
Resourcefulness was the mother of the invention of The Vermonter candy, she said, as her father had a baby daughter, Handy herself, and his wife to support. Her father and grandfather came up with the idea to add maple syrup, in addition to the traditional white sugar and in some cases corn syrup, that give brittle its distinctive flavor and texture.
Her nut brittles were butter-free, she said, unlike most commercially made peanut brittles. And the company was making a brittle in recent years that was free of corn syrup.
In recent years, Handy had added special peanut and cashew brittles that didn't contain corn syrup to make them a bit healthier, if candy can be considered healthy, she said with a laugh. But all that candy history is now stored away.
One family tradition was to give away the "seconds," those edges of the brittle that were thick and irregular. People would stop by the West Hill location and pick up the seconds, she said, or she would give it to the local food pantries in Putney and Brattleboro.
Handy said she's been losing money for the past couple of years and decided to close the business last year rather than pay her annual workmen's compensation insurance, which was more than $1,000 for only eight days of candy making. She said the increase in the minimum wage had a profound effect on the cost of her candy, and the shops that stocked and sold the candy told her it would be too expensive. The brittle is very labor-intensive, she said, since once it is cooked, it is spread on large Vermont marble slabs and pulled and stretched to achieve its trademark thinness. In the case of the maple walnut crunch, the walnuts are then sprinkled on top, and the cashew and the peanut brittle, the nuts are added to the candy base. She said her employees, many of whom had been with the small candy company for decades, knew how to stretch it and achieve the right thinness. She stocked her customers through the holiday season and delivered the last of the distinctive boxes with the colonial figure stirring a copper kettle of candy, with the bright green "The Vermonter" lettering. But the rising labor costs and overhead costs were too much, said Handy, who also runs a bed and breakfast inn at her home, the Copper Kettle B&B.
She said she has thousands of the distinctive candy boxes up in her attic. Selling the candy-making equipment doesn't make sense, she said, because it is antiquated. Nowadays, specialty candy uses specially designed and made tables, which the Handy family had to improvise. For instance, the large 14-foot marble slabs where the super hot brittle is poured and stretched, has to be heated so that the brittle doesn't cool too quickly before it can be stretched to the right thinness.
She bought maple syrup from the Collins family in Westminster West, as Jennifer Collins was a longtime candy maker under her father, she said. The peanuts first came from Texas and then Georgia, and her father even drove to Texas in the early days to get the exact small Spanish peanut he wanted. The walnuts came from California, and the cashews from Brazil. The peanut brittle has always been the most popular, she said.
The Vermonter candy business and its special recipes and techniques are not for sale, she said. If her son or her nieces and nephews, who live in Rutland County, want to revive the family business, it will be there for them, she said. She and her brother are thinking of making a couple of batches of their Vermont brittles next fall - but only for personal Christmas presents.
"It's not for sale," said Handy, questioning why anyone would want to buy it anyway since it wasn't making a profit. "It's such a unique family treasure. It's hard for the secrets to go out of the family," she said.
Contact Susan Smallheer at email@example.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.
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