By Jessica Mozo
Old-fashioned candymaking is alive and well in Bristol. Watch the Ratliffs create their sugary treats, candy cane baskets, in a video here, or read on for more about their candy.
If you’d walked the streets of downtown Bristol, TN back in the 1930s and ’40s, chances are the sugary smell of candy in the making would have hung in the air.
“Bristol was a candy-making mecca from the ’20s to the’50s. At one time there were nine candy companies here, but now that number is down to two,” says Ken Ratliff, owner of the longstanding Ratliff Candy Co. “The altitude and humidity here is just right for making stick candy.”
Carrying on the Candy-Making Tradition
While most of the old-time candy makers have closed up shop over the last few decades, Ratliff and his son, Mike, are carrying on the town’s tradition of making and selling hard candies in five flavors: peppermint, wintergreen, lemon, strawberry and peanut butter.
“My mother and father, Lewis and Hattie Ratliff, started the company back in 1952, and my dad delivered their candy to mom-and-pop stores in East Tennessee and West Virginia,” Ratliff says. “They made peppermint stick candy, peanut squares, coconut candy and fudge.”
Edible Gifts Make a Real Treat
Today, Ratliff Candy only makes hard stick candy, but they put an unusual twist (literally!) on an old favorite. Using the same ingredients and old-fashioned techniques Lewis and Hattie used in the 1950s, Ken and Mike knead, pull and roll miles of candy “logs” into unusual products such as candy cane baskets, candle holders, cups and other functional odds and ends.
“A lot of people decorate with them at Christmas, and the tradition is to break it and eat it once the festivities are over. They’re completely edible and have no preservatives,” Ratliff says. “Other people keep them from year to year. One lady called and said she had hers for 15 years before it broke, and several have told me they lasted eight to 10 years.”
While Christmas is the busiest season for the candy cane baskets, the Ratliffs also make them in pastel colors and different flavors at Easter and other holidays.
Ken’s parents gave him the idea for the edible artwork, but he and Mike have perfected it over the last 40 years. To get the baskets to stay together, for example, they’ve learned to cook the candy to a certain temperature before cooling and molding it so it won’t get sticky or melt.
“My mom and dad played around with the technique and made a few candy baskets for my sisters and I to give as gifts to our teachers,” he recalls. “I took over the business in 1970, and it just expanded by word of mouth. At our peak season, we made 35,000 to 40,000 candy cane baskets a year.”
Big Success for a Small Business
Over the years, Ratliff Candy has downsized, not wanting to lose the charm of handmade candy baskets to machine-made products.
“We don’t want to be in the Walmart and Sam’s Club market,” Ratliff says. “We take pride in our work, and if we did it any faster, we couldn’t offer the same quality. Every basket is a work of art – no two are exactly the same.”
Keeping a low profile hasn’t hurt their sales any, though. The Food Network caught wind of Ratliff Candy’s unusual products five years ago and sent a crew to Bristol to feature them in a Thanksgiving special, which has replayed on national television around the holiday every year since then.
The Ratliffs have also had the honor of providing holiday décor for the White House. During the Carter administration, White House officials bought enough candy cane baskets to decorate 16 rooms.
“It’s tough being a small business, but it’s rewarding,” Ratliff says. “I really enjoy the stories we hear from our customers. A lady called once saying her basket was disintegrating, and the hole in it was getting bigger by the day. We couldn’t figure out why, but she later called back and said she discovered her poodle had been licking it in the same place every day, and she finally caught him in the act.”
Ratliff says his job is also rewarding because of the creativity it involves.
A Tisket, a Tasket, a Tasty Candy Basket
You can order candy cane baskets from Ratliff Candy at their website. Orders ship in three to four days and can be placed online or by calling 800-743-2271.