PIQUA —It was hard not to delight in the photo taken by Bill Franz and shared to social media last month showing a woman in a hair net, apron, and gloves working over a batch of chocolate goodies. All that was missing was Lucy Arnaz, her best friend Ethel Mertz, and a line manager yelling, “Let ‘er roll!”
Who wouldn’t want to work in a chocolate factory? The enticing aroma of chocolate —at Christmas!— permeating the air amongst the soft hum of machinery. An instant boost to any mood. A sentiment expressed by Winans Fine Chocolates & Coffees longest working employee Clara Hutton, or Miss Clara, as she is fondly referred.
“It’s candy!” said Miss Clara, 82, with a knowing but somehow humble smile at the same time. There was something telling in both her voice and eyes that there is nothing better than working with chocolate. Certainly, she is a testament, having worked at Winans for the last 44 years. The first and only outside work she has ever done, too, which has given her the opportunity to see a few changes over the years. At least in terms of locality as Clara initially started at the well-known Carriage House on West Water Street but can now be found at the company’s College Street location.
Along with Lottie Staton —working on her 12th Christmas with the company— Miss Clara was working on a milk chocolate line the day of her interview, the two were in the process of making Buckeyes. Miss Clara making sure the chocolate was perfect (Given it can be temperamental) by keeping an eye on many factors —temperature, color and texture— while Staton dipped precisely rolled peanut butter balls.
Miss Clara and Staton know their candy and the machinery, the latter pivotal to its creation as the day cannot begin without a series of pre-production steps to make sure the chocolate comes out just right. However, there’s something more going on here than the enjoyment of a popular confection and familiarity over time with the process.
Perhaps it is the fact the production line is something of a family affair? Well beyond the generations of ownership behind the company name. Miss Clara has had family in the chocolate-making business, including a daughter and grand-daughter, with the potential of bringing in a great grand-daughter over her college holiday break, making for four generations.
Even Staton began working with the company under recommendation of her daughter, Rita Stevens, chief candy maker.
In turn, Stevens’ son-in-law tends to the original kettles at the back of the building, working with the original candy recipes Winans is so well-known for. The single College St. location serves 11 stores, as well as three Dorothy Lane Markets and three Miami University locations.
Winans Fine Chocolates & Coffees, celebrating 50 years just a few years ago in 2011, traces their origins to the late 1800s in Michigan, and to the early 1900s when brothers Max and Dick Winans added hand-dipped chocolates, brittles and copper kettle caramels to the menu.
What soon followed was the opening of Winans Carriage House Candies in Piqua during the early 1960s.
It was the Carriage House that Miss Clara recalls, after her youngest child out of five entered first grade, where she went for an interview after applying for a job that she had seen advertised in the newspaper for candy wrapping.
“Before that, I hadn’t worked at all,” said Miss Clara, with the October interview her first introduction to Laurie Winans Reiser, future fourth generation owner.
“I was there?” asked Reiser with an ear-to-ear smile as Miss Clara nodded on what could well be considered Day 1 on the calendar as she obviously made quite the impression in her job interview, and was called to work the following day.
While Reiser may not recall that ironic first day for Miss Clara, she did confide that having Miss Clara on board has been more than an asset, given her long commitment to the business, she’s practically family. She even has a candy named after her —Miss Clara— a toffee square covered in chocolate with crushed pecans.
“We just love her,” said Reiser with a hint of emotion around her eyes as she explained how her father had felt the same way and before sharing that her own son, not too long ago, had his first introduction to the kettles. Meanwhile, over her shoulder, a framed photo on the wall showcased that very iconic ‘I Love Lucy’ 1950 TV show of the chocolate factory scene, Lucy and Ethel with their mouths full of candy.
Again, who wouldn’t want to work in a chocolate factory?
For more information visit www.winanscandies.com.