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Uncommonwealth: Old Kentucky Chocolates celebrates 50 years of sweetening up its customers

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 31, 2014 

  • Old Kentucky Chocolates

    ■ 450 Southland Dr., (859) 278-4444

    ■ 410 W. Vine St., (859) 252-2639

    ■ 3385 Tates Creek Rd., (859) 268-4711

    Web: Oldkycandy.com

    The store is giving away a $50 gift certificate each month to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Register in the store.

The building that houses Old Kentucky Chocolates on Southland Drive was once a Kroger store, which explains the high ceilings and spacious aisles and 18,000 square feet of space.

Inside that vast space is a candy store, gift shop and production area for a chocolate store that's celebrating its 50th year of business this year.

That's a lot of chocolate and sugar and nuts.

There's an overwhelming aroma of chocolate there, too, but owner Don Hurt can no longer smell it after decades of exposure. A longtime baker and confectioner, Hurt has been on Southland Drive for 50 years, moving into the current location at 428 Southland Drive in 1990.

The first candy Don Hurt ever made was peanut brittle. His favorites are toffee, truffles and caramels. His wife, Pam, likes bourbon truffles. Jim Beam is the bourbon used for the bourbon chocolates, at the request made by a Jim Beam executive.

Old Kentucky Chocolates has three locations — the others are in Lexington Center and at the Lansdowne Shoppes. The company employs 30 people spread over the three locations and in production. The company also sells online.

The store and production area of Old Kentucky Chocolates is a favorite destination for tours, including the Clays Mill Elementary school group that toured last week. Teacher Karen Berry said that the classes can walk to the store and the tour gives them a good idea of economics in describing the journey from farm to front of the store.

"They showed us how it went from a cocoa bean into chocolate," Berry said.

A vat of liquid chocolate turns in a room close to the sales floor, while nearby, a siphon and paddle go to work on what appears to be a small ocean of liquid white chocolate waves.

Old Kentucky Chocolates also produces pecan cakes and fruitcakes. Fruitcakes get a bad rap, Hurt said. The secret to a good fruitcake is simmering the fruit in a solution of invert sugar, ensuring a tender consistency and avoiding overly firm fruit.

It's the rare central Kentuckian who has not bought or sold Old Kentucky Chocolate's fundraising candy bars for a club, sport or other school-related event.

"Our fundraising is good, and we're pushing it," said Hurt, whose brother Bill was a high school principal at Henry Clay High School for 18 years, retiring in 1989.

"It's a good way to pick up money, and it (the chocolate) is all Fair Trade."

Near the Southland location is Sharp's Candies on Regency Road. Hurt said the two stores are friendly rivals who trade information on items of confectionery import.

"There's plenty of business for everyone," Hurt said. "It's important to work together."

And speaking of plenty of business, over the two days around Valentine's Day, Old Kentucky Chocolates dipped 1,000 gallons of strawberries and 1,500 pounds of grapes. The chocolate-dipped strawberries are the best seller, Hurt said.

When workers aren't dipping fruit, they "enrobe" solid cream centers that look like chunks of cookie dough on an assembly line behind the store front. The candies are then packaged and held long enough for a chemical reaction to dissolve the centers into the liquid filling that customers expect.

Gary Dinstuhl, a confectionery consultant for Old Kentucky Chocolates, said that customers often ask how that sugary cherry cordial liquid gets into the center of the chocolate: The trick is that it goes in as a solid.

"The basis of a lot of what we do is sugar," Dinstuhl said. "Every day I learn something new about how you use it."

Dinstulh has a bit of apostolic fervor about sugar, chocolate and how both interact to create superb edible art. Around him one worker packs a series of dark chocolates molded into the shape of an "A," while another puts sticks into white chocolate lollipops.

"I made my first candy when I was 8 years old," he said, gesturing to a 30-pound box of perfect pecans and a pallet of 50-pound bags of fondant sugar. "Chocolate is unique. There's nothing like it in the world."

In the front window of the Southland store sits a huge pastel display for Easter, with a tall skinny bunny the size of a small human as a centerpiece. Near the cash register is a full-size horse, painted in authentic chocolate.

On a shelf near Hurt's desk is a collection of special-occasion chocolate in boxes — get-well chocolate and chocolate to commend police officers, celebrate marriages and condole divorces. Have a special occasion? There's chocolate for that.

Some customers have been patronizing the stores for decades, Hurt said. Others are like the woman who pulled up on a recent Monday morning, tried a few of the bountiful samples and then walked out with a bag full of candy.

"Every day is fun or I would quit," said Hurt, 77. "People don't leave a candy shop sad."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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