Owner Amy Servais behind the counter at Velatis Caramels. Photo by Mike Diegel.
One of Washington D.C.’s oldest continually operating businesses is in an unassuming location in downtown Silver Spring.
Velatis Caramels opened in Washington at 620 Ninth St. N.W. in 1866, more than 150 years ago, serving handmade caramels and other treats. Many of displays in the current store tell some of the company’s history through old ads, different candy box designs and so forth.
“The company first started in Richmond,” said owner Amy Servais. “And at the end of the Civil War, when Richmond burned, their shop burned, too. They had other things in it besides the caramel, the candy that we know today at Velatis.”
The shop offered many Italian products along with fresh fruits and vegetables, she explained.
The Washington location closed in the 1970s due to the construction of the Metro. Woodward & Lothrop Co. bought the trademark and secret recipes, selling candies in the company’s stores during the holidays.
J.C. Penney’s acquired the company’s assets when Woodie’s, as it was known to the locals, went out of business.
Penney’s then started selling off many of those assets, including Velatis, and Servais, a sixth-generation Washingtonian, convinced her family to invest in what she called “the first candy I ever had” in 1996.
Servais, whose background was in women’s fashion and retail, began working with the recipes, learning, as she said, by trial and error over a six-month period.
“Once I got it down, then I said, ‘Well okay, let me find the right equipment,’” she said. “It took about a year to get the recipes down, the equipment down.”
She put an ad in The Washington Post around Christmas, 1997, selling by mail order from Tampa, where she lived at the time. She later relocated to Virginia, just outside of Richmond, continued selling by mail order and supplying a growing internet-based clientele.
The products also were sold at the Bethesda Women’s Market and Alexandria Farmer’s Market while Servais looked for a permanent location.
She opened the Silver Spring store at 8408 Georgia Ave. in 2008 and in 2015, opened inside the Pentagon. All the caramels, chocolates and baked goods are made in the Silver Spring store. The Pentagon location makes its own chocolates, while the caramels and baked goods are delivered daily from Silver Spring.
Velatis features two types of caramels.
“There are two different textures,” Servais said. “One is called the sugary, or crumbly caramel. Once you bite into it—to me, it’s like a praline. It’s just going to crumble and melt right in your mouth.
“People will call it different things from different parts of the world,” she added. “It’s made with the exact same ingredients, it’s just cooked a little longer, a little hotter so it draws out the moisture. Lot of people say it looks like a fudge [but] it’s not gooey like a fudge.”
The other type is the familiar chewy caramel.
Every one of about 20 caramel varieties Velatis offers starts from the traditional vanilla flavor, made with all natural ingredients and no preservatives. Flavors, nuts and other ingredients get added in the cooking process.
In addition to the retail locations, selling online and through Amazon, there’s a wholesale side to the business. Velatis sells to hotels like the Marriott chain and Gaylord’s, largely for conventions and conferences, but also for gifts to regular customers. They also do a lot of business with Bell Flowers in Silver Spring.
That side of the business accounts for about 20 percent of the company’s volume. Another approximately 20 percent comes from online sales, and the balance is walk-in business, Servais said.
In addition to the caramels, Servais came up with a toffee recipe. The store also carries various chocolates (available in store only), specialty items like caramel ice cream toppings, truffles (the only thing they don’t make all of themselves) and baked goods featuring Velatis caramel and toffee.
The Silver Spring store is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and is closed on Sunday.
On display in the store are various versions of Velatis’ candy boxes over the years. Photos by Mike Diegel.