It’s been about eight years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. But the storm was so devastating, that when you ask Chuck Williams to talk about his New Orleans-based candy shop, that’s the first topic of conversation.
As the manager of Southern Candymakers, which is famous for making one of New Orleans most famous candies — the pralines — he’s not only proud of the store, but also the employees.
Williams opened Southern Candymakers nearly 22 years ago on Leap day in 1992, with Peter Tompkins, and Tomkins’ family.
“We needed to have a good candy store in New Orleans,” Williams explains.
Their main store, at 334 Decatur St., New Orleans, features two entrances, both of which allow customers to walk past a glass wall. Candy makers stand behind both of them, creating the stores latest confections, and filling the shop with the delicious smell of cooking caramel and melting chocolate.
They’ve also since opened a second shop just down the street in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, at 1010 Decatur St.. And, they also recently bought a new space down the street that they’re planning to use to pack and ship items.
“Twenty years ago I never would’ve thought we’d ever outgrow this space,” Williams says of the first shop he and Tompkins opened.
Back when Katrina hit, they had just the two stores. Luckily, neither of them were flooded, but the windows were blown out, and a lot of the workers’ homes were damaged by the storm.
“The candy store was 13 years old, and then Katrina came along and pushed us back a few steps,” Williams explains.
Southern Candymakers had to close down for about two months after the storm, and then even when they did open back up, there just weren’t many customers. For a candy store that relies heavily on foot traffic, they suddenly found themselves serving a lot of construction workers.
“There were no tourists. No conventions were scheduled,” Williams says. “There were a whole lot of guys from New York... and some religious groups.”
All the while, customers from all the country were reaching out to them to make sure they were going to re-open.
“They were praying that Southern Candymakers would survive, and we did,” Williams says.
Of course, many of those customers were no doubt hoping to get at least one more of the Southern Candymakers’ famous pralines. The confection is extremely popular in New Orleans, and like many confectioners, the candy makers at Southern Candymakers have put their unique spin on the treat.
Although the base of fresh cream, butter, sugar, and Louisiana pecans is usually the same, the confectioners at the store have also concocted chocolate, rum, peanut butter, coconut, and sweet potato pralines.
Whichever version customers like, they’re sure to get a fresh, delicious treat. All the Southern Candymakers pralines are made onsite, and they’re made with jumbo pecan halves, which Williams says gives them that little something special. They’re also made in small, 6-lb. batches so there’s always fresh.
Pecan Pralines have a long and storied history in New Orleans, and although the origin stories differ, it’s widely believed the treat is named after a French diplomat from the early 17th century, César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin. But, the actual creator of the praline is believed to be his personal chef, Clement Lassagne.
Although exactly how he came up with the idea is unclear. In some versions of the story Lassagne got the idea from children scavenging for scraps in the kitchens, nibbling on almonds and caramel leftover from one of his pastry creations.
Of course, the store makes way more than pralines. They also sell a variety of other Southern favorites, like their take on the caramel and nut “turtle.” And, delicious dark chocolate almond clusters, candied orange peels, and of course, what southern candy store would be complete without chocolate alligators?
There’s also crisp buttery toffee, fudge, praline sauce, and brittles.
And, the on-site candymakers love to come up with new creations while they’re at work — like chocolate-covered chili peppers. Williams even lets the employees dabble in the candy kettle during their free time, because he says you never know where your next big seller is going to come from.
He also lets the employees eat all the free samples they want, explaining that he would never want a customer to ask them what something tastes like and for them to not have a genuine answer.
Not all of the candy is sold in person though. While Southern Candymakers does depend heavily on foot traffic, it also has a very strong website, fulfills lots of corporate orders, and has a thriving catalogue business, printing off about 40,000 a year.
Of course, it’s hard to ship chocolate in the summer season, which lasts a little bit longer in New Orleans than it does in the rest of the country, but they just use ice packs when the temperatures allow it, and try to avoid shipping chocolate when they don’t.
And, Williams says pralines actually have a very high melting temperature — 250 degrees, compared to about 93 degrees for chocolate — so they’re much easier to ship.
At the end of the day, what really helped Southern Candymakers survive Hurricane Katrina is the same thing that’s helped them survive all these years — none of the employees or the customers ever considered “not coming back.”
With that kind of loyalty, the Southern Candymakers is sure to remain open for many, many years.
At A Glance: Southern Candymakers
Stores: 334 Decatur St., New Orleans; 1010 Decatur St., New Orleans
Staff: Owner, Peter Tompkins; Manager, Chuck Williams; Systems/Website Director Kate Holcomb; Head of Shipping/Shipping Manager MaryJane “M.J.” Robitaille; Head Candy Maker Jill “Blues” Demeny; Head of the Praline Kitchen Michael Joseph and 30 total employees
Website: www.southerncandymakers.comFamous candy: The Praline, which comes in original made with fresh cream, butter, sugar, and Louisiana pecans, but also chocolate, rum, peanut butter, coconut, and sweet potato flavors.