From the outside, 312 Guilford St. looks like just another apartment building. The only thing showing what lies inside is a single sign visible through the window.
The location is where Van Winkle’s Homemade Opera Fudge is produced, and where LebTown met with Kirk Van Winkle for a socially distant interview.
Last year, the business’ founding couple Fred and Nancy Van Winkle passed away a few days apart. However, Van Winkle’s continues to produce opera fudge the same way it always has.
The process of making opera fudge
Van Winkle’s employs roughly a dozen people who work in different parts of the production, with more helping during the holiday season.
First, ingredients are combined and heated on the stove. They are stirred by hand for 15-20 minutes, a tricky procedure: if they are stirred too much, they become too soft, but if they are not stirred enough, they turn out sugary.
Then, the mixture is rolled into balls and refrigerated. Over the winter, the windows are left open to keep the fudge as cold as possible during this process.
“It really is a cold weather product, and the colder you have it the better,” said Kirk.
Next they are dipped in chocolate and refrigerated once again before being packaged and moved into storage.
“Everything is handmade, there is no machinery whatsoever,” said Kirk.
The entire process, from start to finish, takes around 11 hours and is done all in the course of a day.
“Whenever we start it is the same day we finish, no matter how long it takes. It’s just the way we’ve always done it,” said Kirk.
While fudge is occasionally made over the summer to refill certain flavors of fudge, Van Winkle’s main production season is from September to December.
In September, it produces roughly 200 pounds of fudge in a day, then 225 in October, and finally 250 approaching Christmas. The amount of days Van Winkle’s is manufacturing also increases by the month: three days a week in September, four in October, five in November, and a full seven days a week in December.
Kirk, who works on the production, management, and financial sides of the business, puts in 18-19 hour days during the Christmas season.
While Van Winkle’s does not have a storefront, it supplies roughly 30-35 different stores with its products. While its classic flavor is the most popular, the specialty lightly flavored strawberry, coconut, chocolate, peppermint, and peanut butter flavors are also available.
“My mother always said, ‘if you want a peanut butter cup, buy a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, you’re still supposed to be able to taste the opera fudge,'” said Kirk. “None of these are a really overpowering flavor, just enough to get the taste of it.”
The history of Van Winkle’s opera fudge
The family business was first started in 1962, three years before Kirk was born. According to Kirk, his mother wanted to be able to stay home with her older son (who was six at the time) during the day, so she started making the candy from home.
“She did the whole thing by herself; she set up the business, she got in contact with the Department of Agriculture and got the license and everything set up,” said Kirk. “That was all her.”
Over time, Nancy went from making the candy on her own to hiring a small staff to work on various stages of the process.
As time went on, her husband Fred also began to take a more active role in the business, eventually handling the finances.
While Kirk has only been working full time for Van Winkle’s since 1987, opera fudge has surrounded him his entire life.
“I’ve been doing this full time since ’87, but pretty much my whole life, so I could pretty much do it in my sleep,” said Kirk, joking that since he starts working at 5:30 a.m. to start production, he basically is making it in his sleep.
Kirk has been running many elements of Van Winkle’s for years. As he explained, his mother had Alzheimer’s the last eight or nine years of her life, and his father had a wooden leg and could not do more physically intensive work. After the pair passed away last year, Kirk took over the business’ finances, a job his father had done for years.
“It wasn’t really much of a transition, other than me learning how to do the paperwork,” said Kirk. “Once I learned all that, it was pretty simple.”
Van Winkle’s has been able to continue producing fudge despite Covid-19 restrictions, as food production businesses are considered essential. While Kirk noted that sales were down around Easter, there were actually greater sales than usual this summer.
“It seems since [Easter], the last couple months it’s been busier than it normally is,” said Kirk. “Our sales have definitely been more this summer.”
Kirk also noted that the business relies largely on seasonal sales over the winter, and generally only produces fudge when needed the rest of the year.
“Compared to everybody else, we had no complaints because there are so many people that got hurt so bad by this and we got lucky,” said Kirk regarding COVID-19’s impact.
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