Near Lawrenceburg, woman keeps family's candy company alive

Mary Lee Valladares dipped marshmallows in caramel to make the famous Modjeska candy.
Mary Lee Valladares dipped marshmallows in caramel to make the famous Modjeska candy.

LAWRENCEBURG — When Anna Bauer Satterwhite turns the corner toward her office, the perfume of warm caramel wafts into her car along with her father's spirit. He sits beside her again just for a minute to warn her about the perfidy of marshmallows and the trickiness of chocolate.

Then it's through the glass door of the Bauer's Candies warehouse where she begins another day working on the continued survival of the company that her father, her grandfather and her great-grandfather founded and fostered.

The survival depends on one product, the same one Bauer's has been making since 1889. It's a Kentucky creation with an exotic Polish name, the Modjeska, a pillow of homemade marshmallow covered in deep amber caramel. For the Modjeska's many fans, the combination of these two mundane ingredients becomes a sublime confection. But in a deep recession, a boutique candy operation, no matter how delicious its products, is at risk.

For the past decade, Satterwhite, 45, has plotted to keep her family's legacy going, a deeply personal goal for her and the workers in her warehouse who boil the cream and sugar, dip the marshmallows and wrap each "caramel biscuit" in wax paper, one by one by one.

"Every day, the smell reminds me of them," Satterwhite said, referring to her parents, Janet and Fred, who ran the family business in Louisville until 1976. "They would be so unbelievably proud of all this."

Birth of the legend

Satterwhite's story really starts back in 1883, when the renowned Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, appeared in Louisville in a production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. (She's also the subject of Susan Sontag's National Book Award-winning novel, In America.)

According to the stories passed down through the Bauer generations, candy maker Anton Busath was so enthralled by Modjeska's performance that he asked permission to name his newly invented marshmallow and caramel candy after her. After Busath's closed in 1947, Bauer's, which had also made the candy at its Louisville stores, took over the name Modjeska.

The candy became their star attraction, alongside the more ordinary chocolates and hard candies that make up any retail operation. The family operated several stores in Louisville until the 1974 tornado destroyed their flagship operation on Bardstown Road.

Fred and Janet Bauer decided their candy careers were over. They closed the stores and retired to Mount Eden.

But they got so many requests for Modjeskas, they turned their spare room into a candy-making operation and went back to work. Anna and her five brothers and sisters helped out with the dipping and wrapping. After Anna Bauer graduated from college, "I swore I'd never make candy again."

She got married and started her own career in insurance. Then, in 1988, Satterwhite's first son, Matthew, was born, and she no longer wanted a regular job. She realized with some surprise that she wanted to take up the family legacy once more.

"I said, this is sink or swim time. I cannot let this die because this is my heritage and I'm so proud of it."

Satterwhite and her family moved the operation to the small warehouse outside Lawrenceburg. Her father had always refused to make marshmallows because of the time and trouble involved.

But shortly after her father died in 1999, the San Francisco company that had always made their marshmallows closed. The owners called her up and said, "Anna, come out here, and we're going to show you what you need to do."

Satterwhite learned how to make marshmallows. With the help of Don Hurt, the owner of Old Kentucky Candies, she bought the machinery necessary to make the puffy white squares. Her father had been right. Marshmallows are extremely tricky pieces of candy.

"It's hard because it depends on humidity levels, but we worked and worked and we finally got it right," Satterwhite said.

Their own marshmallows tasted even better than before. But Bauer's real breakthrough came at a Kentucky Crafted show shortly afterward, where some folks from Cracker Barrel tasted the Modjeskas.

Now the candy was selling at every Cracker Barrel in the country. That was followed by Williams-Sonoma, a more upscale arena that found the uniqueness of Modjeskas compelling, and sold them in their catalogs and some of their stores.

Still, hard economic times made Satterwhite extremely nervous. All she had were the Modjeskas. Her Christmas seasons were still prosperous — her workforce swelled from about 10 to about 50 people — but the rest of the year got a little too quiet.

So two years ago, she did something that no one in the Bauer dynasty had ever done.

She changed the Modjeska recipe, adding dark chocolate to the caramel coating.

Her parents may have gasped from beyond, but customers liked what they saw. Williams-Sonoma even extended its sales past Christmas to Valentine's Day to include the chocolate candy. They now sell a "checkerboard box" that features both kinds.

The chocolate had saved Bauer's through the worst recession since the Great Depression.

"We may not have grown," Satterwhite said. "But we haven't failed."

Still made by hand

In the Bauer's warehouse, Mary Lee Valladares is the only worker who still enjoys eating Modjeskas, even though she's been making them for the past 11 years.

Like the other five workers, she has a crock pot of hot caramel and a box of marshmallows. With little effort, she trawls the white candy through the brown goo, and flicks it carefully onto a tray.

"I get burnt all the time," she said. "But I love the caramel ... it's a texture you get to know when it all comes together, all pretty and creamy."

Don Hurt, who has become Satterwhite's candy mentor, sells the Modjeskas as Majestics at his stores.

"It looks good and it tastes good," he said, of the candy's popularity. "The way it releases in your mouth is what makes it so popular."

Hurt said it's rare for any candy maker to still do things by hand, but "she (Satterwhite) is young and she can do it. When you do something all day every day, you get good at it."

Satterwhite is spending more time at food shows, trying to rustle up more publicity for her family product. She has tinkered with other ideas, such as a bourbon Modjeska, but couldn't get it quite right. She will keep going with other ideas, but never giving up Bauer's original candy. Some day, she hopes, the business can be handed over to one of her sons. Because in the end, the business of making Modjeskas is about a lot more than candy.

"I lost my parents, but at the same time I haven't," she said. "I get to carry on something they loved."