Sunday, June 23, 2024

Happy Fudge reopens: a labor of love honoring a legacy

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LEAVENWORTH – For owner Jason Stewart and Manager Melissa Wike, reopening Happy Fudge, once Happy Happy Fudge, was not a money-making pursuit, but a way to preserve the legacy of one of their favorite people, former owner Beth Davelaar.

“We definitely feel like there are times where we know she's watching over and smiling,” said Stewart.

Prior to her passing in January 2023, Davelaar spent over a decade learning the traditional and lost art of copper kettle fudge making and perfecting recipes of her own. She became well-known by locals and returning visitors alike for her warmth, famous caramel Cheetos, and smooth, “guilt-free” fudge.

However, Davelaar wasn’t a confectioner prior to purchasing the shop, originally named Flavor Express. Her first year was the most challenging, as she failed batch after batch. Yet she kept at it and fell in love. She renamed the shop to reflect how she felt: Happy Happy Fudge.

Davelaar eventually brought Wike on, patiently teaching her the challenging fudge-making process while lending a non-judgemental ear as Wike shared details of her personal life with Davelaar.

“It took me almost a year to the day to know who she was, to fully understand her, because she had a really hard exterior. But man, she's squishy inside, and just so kind and sweet, and she had a way of caring for people…She helped in any way she could, but she was never loud about it,” said Wike. “She was family. She was like my second mom.”

Stewart moved in down the hall in 2021 after purchasing Village Alps. At first, Davelaar gave Stewart a run for his money, protective of her late friend and former owner’s shop and suspicious of a newcomer. But, it didn’t take long for her to warm up, helping him learn the ropes of owning a business in a Bavarian town. 

The trio became fast friends, spending their free time together in the hall of Obertal Mall. When Wike left, Stewart and Tammie Fjelstad of Simply Just For You stepped in to help Davelaar make fudge in the morning.

“Beth was so traditional, like at first I was just over here washing pans… And then she slowly started to let me kind of in on the process of it,” said Stewart.

The process involves cooking the ingredients at high heat in a copper kettle, then quickly pouring it on a marble table and paddling it as it cools. Having the wrong degree or two in temperature, or not paddling quickly enough, can ruin an hours-long process in a matter of seconds.

“She had gotten sick, and so she started letting me do kind of the whole process. And so to me, it was a really big deal, like kind of an honor,” said Stewart.

Stewart knew something was wrong when the always punctual Davelaar didn’t show up for work one morning. He headed to her house to check on her and discovered Davelaar had died that morning from cardiac arrhythmia. 

Unable to maintain the shop after her death, Davelaar’s family approached Stewart about taking it over. He took his time with it, knowing that he wanted to reopen the shop with the improvements Davelaar would have wanted. He also knew he needed to get Wike back.

“I knew that the overall heart of this place would be right if the band was back together, and so I was very persistent,” said Stewart.

Reopening was a process of grief and a journey of self-discovery.

The duo overhauled the shop by hand with the help of friends, family, and Fjelstad. Stewart reconstructed the counter to make the fudge process more visible to customers, installed brick, and laid new flooring, learning new construction methods as he went.

Wike led the fudge and caramel Cheeto making through trial and error. She had to remember specific measurements that had never been written down and master some of the trickier tasks that were always left up to Davelaar, such as pouring the quick-setting peanut butter fudge.

Just as Davelaar did when she first took over years ago, Wike and Stewart spent 15-hour days in what they call “The Lab,” trying and failing at inherited recipes and trying new ones of their own.

“I think about what Beth would say, like if she was here during lab time. Some of the stuff we've come up with or done has just been like, no, that's not going to work. She would probably just laugh and shake her head at us,” said Wike.

Eventually, they figured out Davelaar’s caramel Cheetos and classic fudge flavors, even adding their own, such as lemon and chocolate macadamia nut. They also taught themselves how to make sea foam in-house, which Davelaar used to outsource.

“It was all just about love…She changed from Flavor Express to Happy, Happy Happy Fudge because she said fudge made her happy. And we've sat back here and said, this place makes us happy…That was a pretty emotional feeling at that point because what she described, we were able to feel it. To me that was like, job well done, we did it,” said Stewart.

Happy Fudge reopened its doors on Apr. 27. It is located inside the Obertal Mall at 220 9th Street, Suite I, and is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.. 

“We've had a lot of people come in, in this week and a half, and say there's something special about this place, [they] can feel the love in here,” said Stewart.

Down the road, the duo plans to expand into candy canes and fudge-making workshops for kids. They also have visions to give back to animal shelters in honor of Beth, who loved animals.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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