By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Agricultural News
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. – This past Valentine's Day, shoppers looking for special sweets for their sweeties picked up a distinctive Kentucky Proud prouduct: Modjeskas, handmade by Bauer's Candies in Lawrenceburg.
The Modjeska has a marshmallow center covered in rich, creamy homemade caramel. Bauer's owner/president Anna Bauer-Satterwhite operates the multi-generational family business. Anna's great-grandfather began making Modjeskas, which he originally called Caramel Biscuits, in 1889 at Bauer's Candies' first location on Market Street in downtown Louisville.
The Kentucky candy maker who created the hand-dipped confection, Anton Busath, named it in honor of a famous Shakespearean actress of the late 19th century, Helena Modjeska, after he saw her perform in the American premiere of "A Doll's House" on Dec. 7, 1883, at Louisville's McCauley Theater.
Afterward, Busath was introduced to the beautiful Polish actress and asked her permission to name his newly-created candy after her, which she granted. Her signed portrait hung in Busath Candy Co. on Fourth Street in Louisville until the business was destroyed by fire and closed in 1947.
In honor of its creator, Bauer's began calling its Caramel Biscuit the Modjeska. Today, the formerly regional treat has gone global and is more popular than ever.
Bauer's Modjeskas are sold under the Cracker Barrel label in most of its 600-plus locations in 42 states; from high-end retailer Williams-Sonoma, and from many other retail stores in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Modjeskas are shipped all over the world, to Canada, Hungary, China, and even to a lord and lady every year in England.
'Family means everything'
"I'm proud to carry on the name, the tradition, and the quality of the product we have," Anna wrote on the company's website.
"It's still a family business. Family means everything to me," Anna said in an interview following the taping of "Kentucky Proud Kitchen."
"I'm the fourth generation; That's the fifth," she said, proudly pointing to her 26-year-old son, Matt, who was working over a slab of caramel nearby. "He shares my passion for the business."
Matt's younger brother, Mike, 23, is also involved in the family business. "If I decide to retire, the business will be in very capable hands," Anna said.
Anna said the everyday scent of molten caramel at Bauer's reminds her of her family's candy making legacy, passed to her by her father, Fred. Her mom, Jann, was a very integral part of the family business as its bookkeeper.
"I lost my mom and dad, but here, I feel close to them," Anna said, taking a sniff. "That smell – it's Dad. It's like he's right here with me."
When a tornado struck Louisville in 1974 and damaged Bauer's store on Bardstown Road, where it had been located for 42 years, the business almost disappeared, as Busath's company had done 27 years earlier.
"Dad said, 'I'm just done,'" Anna remembered. She recalled surviving the devastating tornado in the basement of the family's home in Louisville's historic Highlands neighborhood shortly after getting home from school.
Back by popular demand
Bauer's didn't exist for three years after Fred moved the family from Louisville to a Spencer County farmhouse near Mount Eden. Friends began calling Fred's home asking for Modjeskas, which have become a yuletide tradition for many Louisville families.
In 1978, Fred converted a storage room in his basement into a kitchen and started making small batches of Modjeskas just for family and friends.
Anna remembers her parents punishing her as a teen-ager by making her stay home and wrap candy. "I thought, 'If I ever get out of here, I'm never wrapping candy again in my life," she said.
Anna would eat those words about 10 years later. Married and a young working mother, she had to take off work frequently to take young Matt to the doctor because of his allergies.
Frustrated with juggling work and motherhood, Anna visited her dad and proposed to turn his cottage industry into a real business again, one that could earn her enough money to replace her income from working at an insurance company in Frankfort and allow her to stay home with her son. Fred tried to talk her out of it.
"He said, 'Anna, I really want more for you than this,'" Anna recalled. "I said, 'Dad, I want to be a stay-at-home mom.'"
Mike was born in 1990. With Anna devoting her efforts to the business full time, Bauer's began churning out candy, sometimes maxing out at 150 pounds a day on the antiquated machinery Fred had salvaged from his old candy shop.
Participating in Kentucky Crafted: The Market in 1997, the first year Kentucky food products entered the show, Bauer's Modjeskas caught the attention of folks from Cracker Barrel, which remains her biggest client.
"Without Kentucky Crafted adding Kentucky food producers, we wouldn't be where we're at right now," Anna said.
Sales at Cracker Barrel continue to grow, exploding 116 percent recently after the restaurant chain took Anna's advice and added a label identifying its glass jars of plain, wax paper-wrapped candies as Modjeskas. The labels were designed by Anna's brother, Kenny Goodson of Louisville Label Inc.
By 1999, Bauer's Candies had outgrown Anna's parents' basement. Anna's husband, Evan, noticed a tract of land for sale just off U.S. 127 north of Lawrenceburg. They bought it and built their current building at 1103 Dylan Drive.
"We went from no overhead to 'What are we gonna do?'" Anna said. "But as the kids grew, the company grew."
Bauer's added a second building to produce its own marshmallows when its supplier, Gimbal's Fine Candies in San Francisco, stopped making them. Gimbal's not only shared its recipe with Anna but invited her to come to San Francisco to learn how to make the tricky marshmallows, which her father had always refused to do because of the time and trouble involved.
"The first day we made them, it was kinda like 'I Love Lucy,'" Anna said, referring to a memorable episode when Lucy takes a job wrapping candy on a conveyor belt that moved too fast.
A chance meeting led to Bauer's Modjeskas being carried by Williams-Sonoma. Anna went to the Williams-Sonoma store in Louisville's Mall St. Matthews looking for a hard-to-find kitchen utensil. She met a woman who asked what she did for a living. When Anna told the woman she was a candy maker, the woman, who turned out to be one of the company's buyers from New York City, wanted to try her Modjeskas. Anna drove back to Lawrenceburg, grabbed a couple of boxes, and returned. The woman liked what she tasted.
"She said, 'I'll bet Chuck [Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma] would love these,'" Anna said. "Ten days later, Chuck's office calls me."
After selling original and chocolate Modjeskas, and chocolate and regular caramels, Williams-Sonoma asked Anna to concoct a pumpkin spice caramel last fall. The result: 19,000 eight-ounce tubs sold out in three weeks to "rave reviews."
"Everybody loves them," Anna said. "We use fresh pumpkin puree, which makes them very unique."
Anna is working on creating an apple pie-flavored caramel, with eggnog, mocha and cherry cordial flavors on the horizon.
Bauer's has been featured on Food Network twice, most recently on Jamie and Bobby Deen's "Road Tasted."
"As soon as 'Road Tasted' aired, phone and Internet orders started coming in," Anna said.
Current plans are to expand the kitchen by eliminating an existing storage room and adding a Plexiglass wall so Anna can give tours and host school field trips. Bauer's, which currently has 15-18 employees and 30-40 during the pre-Christmas rush, will start a second shift in June.
"I wish I could hear what my father would say about the new factory and the direction we are taking," Anna wrote on the company's website. "I know he would be proud."
Anna is proud that Bauer's has achieved so much success with no advertising budget.
"We've gone from a nice-sized business to a basement business to a nice-sized business again with plans to expand," she said. "Last year, I could've sold more candy if I could've made more candy."
Although at least one other candy company in Louisville also makes Modjeskas, the 125-year-old recipe that Bauer's uses is considered the standard by which others are judged.
"I believe we are the only company that specializes in making them," Anna said. "We take a lot of pride in producing a top-notch product which is still made the old-fashioned way. There is definitely a lot of love in every piece."
To purchase candy directly from Bauer's, visit the company's website at www.bauerscandy.com or call (502) 839-9300 or, toll free, (877) 622-8377.
The black-and-white photo of Fred Bauer dipping marshmallows into caramel to make Modjeskas was taken in the 1980s. It hangs on a wall at the Bauer's Candies plant in Lawrenceburg.