Their work is a real treat
Stepping into the tiny, colorful candy shop in The Davenport Hotel, you get the impression great-aunt Sophia would be proud.
Sophia Gerkensmeyer smiles down from a photograph on the wall at the business her niece, Carol Measel, has built in the three years since the historic hotel reopened.
Gerkensmeyer worked as one of the Davenport’s original candy-dippers back in the 1930s and 1940s. When Measel was 10 years old, her aunt began teaching her how to make what is now the hotel’s signature treat — soft peanut butter brittle.
The passed-down family recipe blossomed into a business 12 years ago, but Measel gave it up after five years to secure a degree in accounting and change careers. When Walt and Karen Worthy announced they were reopening the Davenport, however, Measel couldn’t resist offering to prepare her great-aunt’s recipe as a turn-down treat for hotel guests.
“I always thought I would never have a retail shop in Spokane unless it was in the Davenport Hotel because of the history,” Measel said. “We’re thrilled to be here.”
Building off of the original recipe, Measel now runs a business that earned gross revenues of $500,000 last year. She has a factory and additional retail shop at 11400 E. Sprague Ave., wholesale accounts, a line of ice cream, and a full array of handmade candies. They include caramels, caramallows, turtles, bear claws, and Measel’s own creation, the bruttle, which is soft peanut brittle without nuts, coated in chocolate and cut into squares. She named her business for the word that combines butter and brittle.
Coincidentally, as Measel was preparing to pitch her idea to the Worthys, the hotel owners were wondering where they could find the tasty soft peanut butter brittle they had sampled years earlier and were determined to offer as a turn-down treat.
“It’s a match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned,” Walt Worthy said. “I was determined that some way I was going to get that recipe, but I didn’t have to do that. It was just dumb luck that she happened to come in.”
Worthy convinced Measel to open a candy shop in a 300-square-foot storefront on the First Avenue side of the hotel. So Measel and her daughter, Amy Vensland, quit their jobs, built a licensed kitchen in Vensland’s back yard and started making candy.
On the first two days the hotel was open, the mother-daughter team, plus their helpers, distributed 12,000 samples of the candy and sold out of all 700 pounds they had prepared.
“So I thought, ‘I guess this is going to work,’” Measel said.
She explained that people have to try the candy to appreciate it. They don’t believe it won’t stick to their teeth. “It’s all in the method,” she said.
And that method hasn’t changed since Gerkensmeyer bought a 60-pound slab of marble from the hotel in 1951 and used it to hand-pull her peanut brittle. She began searching for a way to improve peanut brittle after a customer complained that it stuck to her teeth. Measel’s employees still cook the candy in a pot on a stove, then pour it out onto the same piece of marble (which retains heat), to be formed.
In addition to the business’s handmade candy, which sells for about $11 a pound, customers in search of treats can find hard candy sticks, truffles, marzipan, and other sweets. Children can come in clutching a nickel and a dime and buy a colorful candy-coated cordial in a variety of flavors. A single piece of bruttle or brittle sells for about $2.
The hotel is a huge customer, buying 300 pounds of soft peanut butter brittle each week for turn-down treats and 1,000 ½-pound boxes of candy every six weeks for mini-bar service, Measel said. Worthy said the hotel is preparing to offer a hot fudge sundae sprinkled with the soft peanut butter brittle as a signature dessert.
But the average customer who walks in the shop, Measel said, is a hotel guest who sampled the candy in a hotel room, then comes searching for gifts to bring home to family. Measel’s best days are Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. She adds 10 employees during the holiday season, when the business ships about 100 packages per day.
“Some of our biggest corporate clients are dentists,” Measel said. “I think that’s hysterical.”
Though Gerkensmeyer is not alive to see how popular her recipe has become, Measel thinks she’d be pleased. Her aunt died at age 103 ½, six months before Measel opened the Davenport shop.