Antonio and Emilia Caruso would be proud of their granddaughter and third-generation candy maker, Julie Johnson, known to most in the community by only her first name. Second, third and even fourth generation business legacies are something this community knows well.
At the Chamber’s Business After Hours March 13, co-hosted by Caruso’s, the legacy of candy-making that began in 1922 was feted, as attendees also congratulated Dick Judd on his upcoming retirement, as they welcomed Bryan and Jolynn Smith, the new owners of the business now marking its 160th year in the community.
“As I was thinking about coming here, I reminisced of all the times I did so in high school,” Mayor Don Lyons said. “Caruso’s is a long-standing tradition in Dowagiac, which is almost 100 years old. Thank you for being here, for supporting the community and for supporting the Chamber. Dowagiac is vibrant because of you. You make me feel very proud.”
The legacy of Dowagiac’s local candy and soda shop began in September 1922, when Antonio and Emilia purchased the Chicago Candy Kitchen in downtown Dowagiac. A proud owner, Julie said Caruso’s is the longest Front Street business, serving lunch.
Some think chocolate runs through her veins. That may be true. Candy making by hand is something Julie is most proud of. “We are one of the few who are left that make candy by hand, physically dipping each and every piece,” Julie said.
While she’s committed to keeping this art form alive, she said it can be quite a task. “Sometimes it’s not easy. I’ve made toffee hundreds of times, but in the last two months, I had to throw out several batches that were not quite right.”
Julie uses the recipes handed down by Antonio, as well as his same time-worn copper kettles and wooden paddles. Having just completed an order for 100 caramel apples, preparation for Easter is up next. Chocolate Easter bunnies are formed in candy molds, also handed down to her by her grandparents. Have no fear chocolate enthusiasts! There’s not a hollow bunny in the house. All of Julie’s rabbits are solid chocolate.
As the second oldest business in Dowagiac, Julie said people often ask how Caruso’s keeps going. “We will hit one hundred for sure. My grandfather was a good business person, who knew what he was doing. The sale of candy supports us during the winter, while ice cream and the lunch counter supports us during the summer.”
Julie also attributes the old-time atmosphere of Caruso’s that makes some of their offerings taste even better. “Our most popular sandwich is a tuna melt. When I make the same sandwich at home, it just doesn’t taste the same as it does here.”
Perhaps it’s the original soda fountain, counter and the classic wooden dining booths that make things taste better. Or it may be the Italian window facades, reminiscent of the streets of Italy from her grandmother’s youth. In any case, what Antonio and Emilia envisioned all those years ago, continues to set Dowagiac apart from other small communities, as it charms generation after generation of locals and lake residents, alike.