For 93 years, one family (and a few very, very close friends) has sweetened up Louisville.
In the gray, early-morning light, the 600 block of East Market Street — with its church, restaurant and candy store — looks like a toy village that needs plugging in. It’s 7:30, time for families to separate for school and work. Parents zip little ones into furry coats, packaging them for the January day. But on this downtown block, a family convenes in a boxy building that stretches a half city block long, a chocolate-scented time capsule called Muth’s.
The storefront remains dark. Elegant turn-of-the-century wood and glass display cases, along with historical black-and-white photos, won’t wake until the store opens in an hour. But in the back rooms, it’s lights on at 6 a.m.
In the area devoted to packaging candy, it appears as if Office Depot, Hobby Lobby and Candyland ditched the ’burbs and moved into a Manhattan studio. Shelves of jellybeans, ribbons and gift boxes line walls, along with folders full of orders. Cramped or cozy, or maybe both, the space feels far from corporate. Family recipes cook in 93-year-old kettles two rooms back, all followed by memory, not a recipe card in sight. Everyone who works here shares DNA or a story that starts something like, “See, my little sister met her way back . . . .”
It’s not a particularly busy day at Muth’s (sometimes pronounced with a chewy vowel: “Me-ewths” instead of “Mooths”), about a month before Valentine’s Day, three months before their busiest season — Easter. Still, for an outsider walking in, even a lazy day presents itself like a family prepping for a holiday.
Twenty-one-year-old Sarah Vories, whose great-great-uncle and great-great-aunt, Rudy and Isabelle Muth, started the shop in 1921 (originally located one block west until I-65 construction moved them to the current location) sits on a stool packaging vanilla-cream chocolates. The pretty brunette, a University of Louisville senior, walks with a quick, bouncy step. Today’s brown cowboy boots give it extra punch. On her green sweater she’s attached a Valentine sticker that reads, “True Love.” The wooden table she sits at, longer than a home’s front door, is the one Muth’s first used to congeal popcorn balls and cut caramel. Across from Vories sits her pregnant cousin, Abbie. Next to Abbie, their Aunt “Rosie.” As plastic bags crinkle, they debate what color eyes Abbie’s baby might have. “What color are Chad’s eyes? Blue?” Vories asks, her golden-brown eyes squinting. “Oh! Your baby’s going to have blue eyes. I’m so jealous.”
A few feet away, two older women in hairnets, Patty Winchell and Frances Cox, gently slip chocolate heart suckers into plastic sheaths. Winchell wears glasses and Cox has a shock of gray curly hair sticking out the front of her hairnet. But from the back, when they walk, they look identical: blue smocks, shoulders slightly bent forward, thin legs shuffling. Winchell arrived here 21 years ago. Her brother was friends with a relative of Rudy Muth. Cox is an old family friend.
Vories and her 23-year-old brother Matt, a U of L graduate who studied communications, will likely take over Muth’s once their mother Martha retires. Sarah’s studying business. She’s organized, a natural leader. Matt’s quieter, funny. The two bicker, mostly in jest over lost FedEx packing slips or Matt’s frumpy-looking bags of chocolates for display. Rather than neatly stacked squares, they sit like beanbags. “It all eats the same,” he says, smiling.
Martha Vories appears from her office. She’s 51 years old, just taller than five feet and wears a baby-blue sweater that matches her eyes. About 20 years ago, Martha’s office was where her three children and their nine cousins learned to crawl, walk and, eventually, run a candy shop. Martha’s father, Stanley Bennett Sr., built a little day care in Muth’s, complete with fireproof carpet, changing table, rocker and bed. (As family legend tells it, Martha delivered Sarah on a Wednesday night and was back in the office on Friday, baby in tow.)
Martha read an article decades ago that said if kids don’t develop a fondness and pride for a family business early on, they may stray. “You have to get them in while they’re young,” she says.
She makes her way back to the kitchen, a warm, dark, saccharine sprawl of brawny industrial mixers and kettles as wide as a washbasin. Bob Masterson, a thin, quiet 40-year-old with a goatee, glasses and blue apron, squirts caramel out of a funnel onto a breakfast table-sized tray packed with nuts. “Turtles are very popular on Valentine’s Day,” Martha notes, watching Masterson squat a bit to get a firm stance before plopping more caramel into round clumps. He’s been the head candy maker since 1998, one of two connected by friendship, not blood. The only other non-relative dates back to the 1920s, when Rudy Muth hired a neighbor to take over candy-making operations.
Masterson walks out of the kitchen, past a shiny steel sink, and swings open a squeaky door to the “dipping room,” a dressing room of sorts where fillings earn their chocolate wardrobe — some dark, some milk. He sets a tray of turtles on a wooden rack. Two 50-something women in Muth’s T-shirts sit on wooden stools, each at a marble slab.
Neva Heckel scoops her bare hand into a warm vat of chocolate, dumping a puddle about the size of a dinner plate onto the marble. She then swirls the chocolate, spanks it and repeats. Swirl. Spank. Swirl. Spank. This cools the sticky, decadent liquid. Next to her, a tray of square lemon-jelly candy awaits in the pleasant 67-degree room, the perfect temp for dipping, made perfect on this winter day by space heaters. She plucks a square, dips it in her dark brown puddle and plops it on a nearby tray. Her thumb, index and middle fingers pinch together, creating one thin drip of chocolate. She uses it to loop a perfect cursive uppercase “L” on top of the square. Some chocolatiers use spoons to drizzle designs. Most candy companies rely on machines. At Muth’s, fingers draw stars, clovers and stripes to help identify the more than 20 different chocolates. Only a few employees can do it; Heckel’s the best. During the holidays her days can stretch to 14 or 15 hours. Some nights, she’ll dream about dripping a capital “B” onto bourbon balls. But she can’t imagine working anywhere else. It would be like a divorce. Muth’s hired her husband when he got laid off from a construction job. The entire staff of nine attends all weddings, baby showers and funerals.
Swirl. Spank. Swirl. Spank. Heckel’s nearly through her tray of lemon-jelly candies. Not one mistake. By the time these candies reach the front of the store, up to six sets of hands will have concocted, decorated and packaged them. When a customer walks in to survey all this handiwork, it’s not a buzzer or bell that chimes. It’s the ding-dong of a doorbell, just like at home.