Caruso’s celebrates 90 yearsPublished 10:41pm Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Many people would be hard-pressed to a find a place like Caruso’s, Dowagiac’s 90-year-old candy and soda fountain shop. When Antonio and Amelia Caruso, who migrated from Italy as children, opened Caruso’s on Sept. 22, 1922, they used the next few decades instilling the tradition of a family-owned and -operated business into their children and grandchildren.
Five generations, including residents outside of the family, have worked at some point at Caruso’s, which still has much of the original decor.
“We say it’s like stepping back in the past,” Julie Johnson, co-owner, said Tuesday as she used an antique machine to mix a hand-dipped shake. According to Johnson, all the original machinery is still used to make shakes and sodas.
Johnson and her sister, Jane Wright, granddaughters of Antonio and Amelia, began working in the shop at 13, something their children, nieces and nephews have also done.
“The kids who start working here also grew up here around the shop,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s daughter, Cassie Sparks, works in the shop, as well as Wright’s children, Cory, who hand-makes the toffee and caramel batches, and Sara, who just started.
“We have actual family that work here, but we also have employees and customers who have become like family to us,” Wright said. “It’s such a strong tradition, and it’s a legacy we want to go on.”
Some of the most memorable moments Johnson and Wright have had at the shop, 130 S. Front St., include an April Fool’s Day prank their grandfather played on Johnson’s friends.
“He dipped pieces of soap (in chocolate) for me to give to my friends at school,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Wright said she remembers sitting on the steps watching candy makers pull the ribbon candy. To this day, all the candy sold in Caruso’s is made by hand.
“I think a misconception people may have about the business is that they see it’s old-fashioned, and they think what we have to offer is old,” Johnson said. “Our candy is made fresh.”
After customers began wondering why root beer sodas were served with ice cream, “the old-fashioned way,” Wright began setting up elementary school field trips to teach younger generations about what Caruso’s offers and how things were done before machines took the place of hands.
“Kids who come in and order for the first time get confused,” Johnson said. “They’re so used to a shake coming out of a machine.”
With such a prominent family tradition, many Dowagiac residents have created their own traditions by visiting with their children.
“My mom worked at the post office, and I would come to Caruso’s for grilled cheese and a shake,” Samantha Ausra, of Dowagiac, said. “I’ve been coming here since fifth grade.”
Ausra brought her son, Tyler, in for the same lunch Tuesday afternoon, saying she wanted him to have the same experience she did.
“I had it, and I want my kids to have it as well,” Ausra said.
Linda Gilbertson and Kathy McDonald also stopped by for lunch since specials are running all week for the 90th anniversary.
“My mom worked here. I worked here in high school. It’s home,” Gilbertson said, pointing to a photo of her mother that hangs on the wall.
McDonald said her children, Jenny and Jeremy, worked at Caruso’s, too.
“It’s family in a way,” McDonald said. “You see people you want to know.”
Johnson said Caruso’s is looking to the future, with plans to launch a website and begin selling candy online.
“My grandfather was always called the ‘Candy Man,’” Johnson said. “It’s great to carry on the family tradition.”
Caruso’s will be open until 9 p.m. Saturday to welcome customers for the official anniversary.