Caruso’s Candy & Soda Shop in Dowagiac celebrates 95 years
Julie Johnson has chocolate in her veins.
It’s a hereditary condition, passed down to her from her grandfather, Antonio Caruso.
Antonio and his wife, Emilia, purchased the Chicago Candy Kitchen in Dowagiac, MI, in September 1922 and promptly renamed it Caruso’s Candy & Soda Shop. They did some minimal remodeling inside, including adding several Italian window facades in the seating area, reminiscent of the Italian streetscape of their youth.
The second story of the building became their residence, and two of their five children were born one floor up from the chocolate-covered peanuts.
“My grandfather learned the trade from several other candy makers, one of whom gave him all his recipes,” says Johnson, the shop’s current owner, who assumed sole operation of the enterprise in 2013. Aside from an adjustment here and there, those original recipes are still in use today at Caruso’s, along with the copper kettles and wooden paddles in Johnson’s careful hands.
Johnson prepares small, fresh batches on a daily basis. “It really is becoming a lost art. There are very few places that still actually hand-dip their chocolates.”
A fine-candy aficionado will find much to choose from at Caruso’s. The showcases across from the soda fountain feature toffee, caramels and peanut clusters, sitting alongside chocolate-covered cashews and pecans, all perched directly at eye level for someone who happens to walk in with a wallet handy.
Johnson says her grandparents were good business people who knew what they were doing, and the store has always been operated by one of their children or grandchildren. For 95 years the shop has served lunch, a full line of soda fountain items and chocolates. Diners can sit on a stool at the original counter, at a table or in one of the classic booths.
Antonio and Emilia made their own ice cream in the basement in the early days, delivering it throughout Michiana until other producers took a bigger market share. Caruso’s was a big hangout for Johnson’s parents and their friends back in the 1940s and ’50s, during lunch and after football games.
Even though Johnson knows better than to fix what isn’t broken, she does enjoy experimenting with new offerings, such as the truffles—double-dipped in chocolate—that she introduced a dozen years ago, now popular as wedding favors.
Part of the store’s longevity is due to its location in a summer resort community, providing clientele who hail from distant locales. These “resorters” have been returning to the inland lakes surrounding the Dowagiac area for four or five generations.
As summer winds down, the caramel apples of autumn lure customers in.
In the winter, the big candy holidays of Christmas and Valentine’s Day keep Caruso’s friendly staff hopping with loyal customers placing orders in person or over the phone, often requesting shipment elsewhere. Crowd favorites around St. Patrick’s Day are the Green River drink, mint chip milkshake or a lime soda. Easter brings solid chocolate bunnies, lambs, chickens, roosters and crosses, created with milk, white or dark chocolate. Chocolate-covered strawberries are offered for Mother’s Day
A big factor in the staying power of Caruso’s is the steady stream of support from the local community. A group of senior men meet over coffee six days a week, some for more than 70 years. A shop owner down the block confesses to walking over for a chocolate fix every afternoon.
Pennie Eckman is a regular at Caruso’s, eating her lunch there several times a week. Years ago she brought her children and now treats her grandchildren and other relatives when they come to visit. Eckman says the toasted tuna and Cherry Coke are a great combo, and the malts and shakes are very popular.
Johnson sustains a true craft, passed down through two generations and supported by a loyal community and customer base for nearly 10 decades. Antonio and Emilia’s dream is still alive in Johnson’s heart, nourished by the chocolate in her veins. She says, “I just can’t let it go. We will celebrate 95 years this fall and I’m focused on hitting our 100th anniversary!”