Velatis In The News - Style Weekly
In the 1850s, the Velati family brought
their candy to Richmond. Now it’s home again.
by Edwin Slipek Jr.
December 22, 2004
It’s cold outside. But inside, beyond the double glass doors
of Velatis, a chocolate and caramel factory in the Goochland County
hamlet of Maidens, rich, warm aromas permeate the air. Steaming, crème
de menthe-flavored caramel is being poured. Breathe hard and the room
becomes a menthol inhalant.
Meet a real live Willy Wonka: Bill Servais, 67, a lanky man whose craggy
face is all but obscured on a recent December afternoon by a baseball
cap and large-framed eyeglasses. He spreads the sweet lava expertly
across a broad metal tray. Then, reaching deep inside a high-tech,
industrial-sized caldron, he scrapes out the last bit of precious goo.
He offers a guest a sample of the still warm, soft caramel. “I wish we
could sell it that way,” he says. “We’d have people standing in line.”
Moving quickly, Servais fills the pot with warm water to clean his
equipment for the next batch. “I’m the chief cook and bottle washer — I
cook the candy, cut the candy and keep the books,” he says, smiling big.
“This is a mom and pop operation.”
A few feet away, across the sprawling, clinically white room, his wife,
Carol, peers out from behind a growing stack of boxed candy she is
readying to mail.
“The room will smell like this for two days,” she says, as the familiar
caramel scent wafts her way. On another day, such flavors as eggnog,
raspberry cream or pumpkin spice might tickle a visitor’s nose.
Velatis is a modest, rural operation on the James, but its longtime
roots and unique taste have helped the company amass a loyal customer
base far beyond Maidens. A quick glance at the mailing labels Carol
Servais has affixed to boxes leaving the post office this afternoon
include Frederick, Md., Medford, Ore., and Fairbanks, Alaska.
Suddenly and excitedly, the Servaises’ daughter-in-law, Jan, who pitches
in during high-selling seasons, explodes from a small telephone/computer
operations room that’s been carved out of a corner of the plant.
“That caller was ecstatic,” she says, “‘I found you!’ the lady shouted
into the phone. She said she saw our ad in The Washington Post. She used
to go to Velatis with her grandmother.”
For most of its existence, the Velatis confectionery store and kitchen
was located at 620 Ninth St. N.W. in downtown Washington, D.C. It opened
its doors in 1866 and continued operations at that address until 1972,
when subway construction dislodged it and other parts of the city.
But old-time Washingtonians know Velatis chocolates and candies — and
many are still fiercely loyal. Stories are legion.
“A woman called and told us about her father who had Alzheimer’s and
hadn’t recognized anybody or anything for two years,” Bill Servais says.
“The sight of a Velatis logo on a candy box brought him back for about
Until the late 1990s, Richmonders had their own favorite locally made
chocolates. These were Madame Evas, initially produced at Cole’s
Caterers and Confectioners, a longtime carriage-trade destination
downtown (see sidebar). Like a Velatis Chewy, Madame Evas could pull the
fillings out of even the best-maintained teeth.
But most Washingtonians and Richmonders don’t know that prior to
becoming a favorite in the nation’s capital, Velatis was manufactured
and sold here from the 1850s until 1865.
Now, after a 139-year absence from Richmond, the Washington institution
has returned to its roots. Carol and Bill Servais, who became addicted
to the candies decades ago when they lived in Washington’s Maryland
suburbs, own the brand and say they’re determined to maintain the
quality and availability of a product their family has enjoyed for
This should warm provincial and chocolate-loving hearts, even if they
haven’t tasted a Velatis vanilla chewy with almonds or a chocolate
sugary with cashews.
Velatis candy made its American debut in Richmond in the 1850s, thanks
to Salvatore and Mary Velati, a couple who had emigrated here from
“Chocolate is typical of Turin. A popular chocolate called a gianduia
still comes from there,” says John W. Edmonds Jr., a writer and native
Richmonder who lives in Milan. “There’s a saying in Italy: ‘E un
cioccolatai’ — ‘He’s a chocolatier.’ It means you don’t want to be
In Richmond, confectioneries were antebellum 7-Elevens. In addition to
candy, these retailers carried fruits, vegetables and sometimes ice
cream. They were as prevalent as convenience stores, too. In 1860, on
the cusp of the Civil War, Richmond’s city directory cited 110
confectionery shops. Curiously, the Velati name was not listed.
Bill Servais speculates that Salvatore and Mary Velati may have made the
candies in their home and supplied other retailers with the treats. The
couple probably lived in or near Shockoe Bottom, where a number of other
Italian confectioneries operated. In 1860, those included Botto’s at
Main and 21st streets; Longinotti’s on 17th Street in the Farmer’s
Market area; and Parducci’s, at 12th and Main streets.
In 1860, Richmond’s German confectioneries were located at the top of
the hill in Jackson Ward. Liebermehl’s, Reinhardt’s, Hirsh’s and Gotze’s
were on Broad Street in the blocks between Second and Sixth streets.
Then, in April 1865, the Velati home was among the 900 Richmond homes
and businesses that were destroyed in the evacuation fire near the end
of the Civil War.
The 1866 city directory, published a year later, included none of the
Italian or German confectioneries listed above. Sweets were not at the
top of most devastated Richmonders’ shopping lists, and the number of
confectioneries plummeted to 33.
But by 1866, Salvatore and Mary Velati had sought greener pastures. They
moved to Washington and were doing business at Ninth Street near G. This
location would remain in the heart of that city’s retail district for a
century. The Velatis and their employees made candies in a basement
kitchen with low ceilings. Reportedly, patrons often stood in long lines
that wrapped around the corner, awaiting fresh batches.
Mary Velati died in 1915, and her daughter Pauline Velati Beyer took
over running the confectionery until she died in 1963. Perennially, both
women complained that the increasing costs of cream was one of their
major business challenges.
“We lived on Capitol Hill, and I remember going to Velatis with my
grandmother,” says Tom Ziolkowski, who works at the National Building
Museum in Washington, D.C. Like most folks who know the candy,
Ziolkowski is eager to talk about it. “It was a different world then,”
he says. “There was a lively sidewalk life in Washington, D.C. — like
most cities. In addition to Velatis other popular bakeries and candy
stores were nearby.”
Velatis had a number of boldface names as loyal customers, ranging from
former first lady and Washington grand dame Edith Wilson to actress Kim
Novak, who played femme fatale roles in such 1950s films as “Vertigo”
and “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
In 1968, when the confectionery was still owned and operated by brothers
William and Robert Beyer, descendants of the Velatis, downtown
Washington was wracked by race riots following the death of Martin
Luther King Jr. Velatis continuously served candy to the National
Guardsmen patrolling their block. Their landmark business went
In 1972, the building in which Velatis operated was demolished, despite
its designation as a historic landmark. A YWCA was built on the site,
but ongoing construction of the underground Metro system had already
disrupted downtown pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns.
So the Beyer brothers moved Velatis into Woodward & Lothrop, a
Washington department store. There, in a fifth-floor kitchen, they
continued making the candies using their traditional, 80-minute cooking
process. They also used the same huge copper kettles, wooden spoons and,
for cooling and cutting, the marble slab their ancestors had used.
In 1980 “Woodies” bought Velatis from the Beyers. But in 1996 the
department store declared bankruptcy. After 130 years as a D.C.
institution, Velatis, presumably, had died along with Woodward & Lothrop.
In the year of the bankruptcy, J.C. Penney Co. acquired many of Woodward
& Lothrop’s assets. But the Velatis name and recipes were bought by
Carol and Bill Servais, then living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and two of
their three children.
It was Amy Servais Hickey, who now manages a women’s clothing store in
Northern Virginia, who urged her parents and siblings to rescue the
Her father had enjoyed a successful career designing computer operating
systems and consulting for executives using computers. Her mother was in
the mortgage banking field. And her brother, Lance, is an executive with
Hamilton Beach/Proctor-Silex in Richmond. Her sister, Michelle, declined
to join the venture, but as a graphic designer, she updated the Velatis
logo and developed package designs.
Suddenly, the Servaises had a new family enterprise.
They weren’t the most likely candidates to be chocolate makers, although
Bill had spent much of his boyhood in Miami, where he’d learned his way
around a kitchen in the hotel his parents owned. “I loved to cook and
worked in the kitchen,” he says. “One of the chefs put me under his wing
and taught me.” But that had been years before.
After acquiring Velatis in 1996, the Servaises spent a year studying the
recipes and the art of candy-making. “The first time we tried the
recipes, we weren’t successful; we didn’t cook the Chewys long enough,”
Bill says. “But we got the second batch right.”
“The biggest surprise was that the old recipes weren’t exact in terms of
when you do this and when you do that,” he continues. “When making the
Sugarys, for instance, you cool them at a lower temperature, and that
takes more of the moisture out.” It took them months to perfect the
Hand-cutting the candies into consistently sized squares also proved
challenging. “My eyes aren’t always perfect,” Bill says.
Amy took the lead in running the business. But, “when the going got
rough,” Bill says, he and his wife would travel from Fort Lauderdale to
Tampa to help out.
At first, orders were few and far between — sometimes just 10 a month.
It took a while for the name to get back into the public consciousness.
But spring 2002 was a watershed for the fledgling family business, when
Washington-based Hecht’s department stores ordered 1,200 boxes of candy
to sell for Mother’s Day. A former Woodward & Lothrop executive who was
working at Hecht’s had been a fan of the candy and tracked the operation
Although convinced they were now in the game, Amy returned to her career
in fashion retail. Her parents persevered.
Free to move and realizing the connection of the brand to Washington,
the Servaises considered relocating to the scene of Velatis’ glory days.
But son Lance and his wife, Jan, were living near Richmond in Manakin
Sabot. So, in the summer of 2002, Carol and Bill Servais moved Velatis
to Goochland County.
They set up shop in a building situated in a cul-de-sac on Maidens Loop,
a country road, in a tiny strip center that included, conveniently
enough, a U.S. post office.
Sales increased significantly when the Servaises moved to Virginia. “Our
first year here sales shot up eight times what we were doing in
Florida,” says Bill. Since then, he says, sales have increased 15
percent each year. Although he declines to share specific sales figures,
he says, “We are profitable.”
The Servaises promote Velatis through flyers and coupons sent to
customers on mailing lists and through advertising in selected magazines
And although the price of cream went up this year, Velatis’ prices were
not raised. The candy retails for about $15 per pound or about $8 for
half a pound.
And perhaps it’s karma that when Velatis returned to the Richmond area,
it settled in Maidens. In the 1930s, according to local lore, a candy
truck overturned one day, spilling its chocolate goods. Neighbors
emerged from the woodwork to scoop up the sweets. Since then, the
intersection of Maidens Road and Route 6 has been called Chocolate Drop
Corner. Today, those in search of a chocolate fix can find one just a
few hundred yards away.
“We have reasonably low overhead, and since we live near Goochland
Courthouse, the commute is unbelievable,” says Bill, “It’s really great
living here. We don’t have to contend with traffic.”
During this holiday season, the Servaises may work until 10 or 11 at
night to fulfill orders. They have one seasonal employee.
“But it’s kind of hard for a wife and husband to work together,” Carol
“She doesn’t like the way I pack the candy,” Bill says, laughing.
“He’s supposed to stay out of my work area [which includes the retail
side of the business],” she adds.
Carol and Bill agree, however, that like their predecessors in the
business, the cost of cream is one of their biggest expenses. “But
whatever we do has to be 100 percent,” he says, “One of my favorite
compliments we’ve had is that when you put this candy in your mouth, it
doesn’t crumble, it just melts.”
“We’re not in the business of selling anything less than the best,” he
says. “This is a unique candy. You can’t get rid of the cream, and you
can’t go to a cheaper sugar. If you added preservatives, then you’d not
be Velatis.” S
In 1860, the Richmond city directory listed 110 confectioneries. By
1866, the number had dwindled to 33 as the city struggled to rebuild
after the Civil War.
During the 20th century, perhaps no candy company was more beloved than
Cole’s. In 1909, Harry V. Cole opened his company, Cole’s Caterers and
Confectioners, on 209 E. Franklin St. It moved to Grace Street in 1962
but closed in 1963.
One of Cole’s specialties was sponge sugar, candy that was hardened and
then softened again, and worked by hand into fanciful leaves and
flowers. It was also one of Richmond’s most popular stores for novelties
and party items.
But one of Cole’s most popular candy products was its made-from-scratch
Madame Evas. They were essentially balls of chocolate about the size of
a quarter, with a pecan or almond embedded on top. Cole had been given
the recipe by a French chef and his wife who had a confectionery shop
near Central Park in Manhattan.
“Madame Evas are to chocolate, what Smithfield is to ham,” wrote former
Virginian-Pilot columnist Guy Friddell, who had a popular column in the
former Richmond News Leader for many years.
In 1974, Cole’s was out of business. But until the late 1990s other
candy makers here produced Madame Evas. And now, Richmond-born and
hand-packed Velatis Sugarys and Chewys have returned. —E.S.