The modest storefront on Georgia Avenue, next to the historic Silver Spring Post Office, tells the newcomer next to nothing about the company’s past, even with “The Original” descriptor mysteriously affixed to its name. As if there are numerous copycat Velatis caramel shops out there.
No, you have to walk inside, stare at the two large vintage photos on the wall, and talk to a clerk to get a glimpse of the complex story behind this caramel maker, whose D.C. roots can be traced back to 1866 to a store at Ninth and G streets.
But even that exercise won’t tell you everything about Velatis, such as why the “The Original” tagline is affixed to its name. Or why, in the late 1990s, a guy named Tim Beyer, a former postal worker and son of a retired caramel maker at Velatis,started selling candy under the Vatores brand but marketed it as based on the original Velatis’ recipe.
Then again, perhaps you don’t care about any of this ancient intrigue. Perhaps you only care about this one important fact: that after an absence of nearly 15 years, Velatis has returned to the D.C. area. You can, once again, walk in the front door of Velatis (now in Silver Spring) and walk back out with a pound of chewy, molar-sticking, marshmallow-stuffed vanilla caramels or soft, sugary chocolate caramels that taste as if the shop has a grass-fed Jersey cow pastured nearby, producing rich, buttery milk on command.
Velatis’ current owners, the Servais family, moved back here in December after working out of a shop in Maidens, Va., since 2002. Amy Servais says the Virginia store was just too rural and that most of Velatis’ mail-order customers were still based in the D.C./Bethesda/Silver Spring area, often the offspring of parents or grandparents or great grandparents who used to wait in line for a box of caramels at the G Street store.
“Velatis caramels were somewhat synonymous with being a Washingtonian and were, for my family, one of the most coveted traditions of Christmas,” Joan Mattingly of Silver Spring told the MetropoList in July 2009 in the Washington Post. “My grandmother always had a bowl filled with the chocolate and vanilla treats at Christmas…”
Amy Servais understands these customers. She and her family have had a similar, multi-generational relationship with Velatis. “I was raised on it, let’s say,” says Servais. “It’s just been our family tradition.”
It’s been a tradition for thousands of families. After a brief stint in Richmond, Salvatore (or Salvator) Velati moved his candy store to downtown D.C., where he sold not only caramels but also produce, sandwiches, and what some considered the best ice cream in the District. In a 1999 Washington Post story, food writer Walter Nicholls painted a detailed, nostalgic picture of the shop:
Many would recall Pauline Beyer, daughter of the founder, who managed Velati’s until her death at age 89 in 1963. Day in, day out she sat at a small, wooden desk in the window near the G Street entrance of the shop. Pauline was said to have run the store with an iron fist. She greeted regular customers, did the paperwork. She was always at the ready to complain, to anyone who would listen, about the ever-rising cost of cream.
The 9th Street display window at the main entrance was Pauline’s world as well. The fancy, tasseled, gold satin balloon shades, extensive collection of delicate, footed Dresden candy dishes and framed copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy were her touches. In busy downtown, where one blank or bland facade blended into the next, Velati’s European style was exceptional.
That shop would fall to the wrecking ball in 1972 when crews were building the Metro. Velatis then moved into Woodward & Lothrop, the flagship of the department store chain known commonly as Woodies. In 1980, Woodies bought the Velatis business, including its recipes, but 15 years later, would be forced to sell it after the chain went into bankruptcy.
That’s where the Servais family came into the picture. Amy Servais was living in Florida during the mid-1990s, fresh out of college. Her sister, Michelle, called to let her know that Woodward & Lothrop had gone belly up and that their beloved Velatis was up for sale. The sisters wanted to buy it.
There was a small problem, though. Woodies didn’t actually own Velatis. The flagship store, including the caramel business and other stores, had been sold to JCPenney. So Amy Servais hopped on a plane to Plano, Texas, JCPenney’s corporate headquarters, to try to scoop up the candy shop. She and her family ultimately beat out several other bidders to buy Velatis and they promptly started a mail-order business in Tampa. Five years later, in 2002, they moved operations to Maidens.
“We’re using the same recipes that we purchased,” says Amy Servais, “which we were told were the original recipes [from 1866].”
Unfortunately for the Servais family, they weren’t the only ones interested in reviving the sweet chewy candies of Velatis. In the late 1990s, Tim Beyer started selling caramels under the Vatores brand; he told the Post that he wanted to “carry on the tradition” of Velatis, which his great-great-grandfather founded and where his father, William, used to make the candy for years. Wrote Nicholls in his 1999 article:
Dad is all for it. “I like the idea, as long as he does it slowly,” says the proud former caramel king. “I’ve tried his caramels. He knows when they’re done. They’re as good as mine.”
Tim Beyer has his own concerns. He knows his caramels are just the consistency they should be. It’s the name. Will the name change work? Will old-time customers recognize the pink box with the big “V”? Maybe. Maybe not.
The problem was, Beyer didn’t own the name Velatis. The Servais family did. So Beyer opted for the Vatores brand, hoping old-timers would make the connection between the brands in taste, if not in name.
This had to be the reason, I figured, that “The Original” descriptor had been attached to the Velatis name. So I asked Amy Servais that very question, and she sort of laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh. It was the laughter of recognition. She had been researching that very issue herself.
“The Original” tagline goes all the way back to Salvatore Velati, who apparently divided his stores between two sons. At some point, Amy Servais says, both of Salvatore’s sons had two stores each. One son called his “The Original Velatis,” while that other used a stranger locution: “The Originator of Velatis.”
“I guess it was a little feud,” says Servais, who has found newspaper clippings in which the battling sons had placed ads right next to each other. She plans to display some of her research when the new Velatis “officially” reopens during the week of March 15-20.
So what about Tim Beyer and Vatores? Velatis bought out Vatores and Vatores merged several years ago, and Beyer occasionally makes appearances at Velatis events although Beyer doesn’t have an official job in the company. The old Vatores Web site and toll-free number now roll over to Velatis.
“It was good for business,” Amy Servais says about the merger.