Ron Kottemann owns and operates Roman Candy Company (www.romancandy.com), a family taffy business with a familiar mule-drawn white wagon that's been a New Orleans icon since 1915. Kottemann spoke with Gambit about the candy's Sicilian heritage, coconut flavored taffy and new mule, Vidalia.
Who founded the Roman Candy Company?
Kottemann: Roman candy is actually Sicilian. My great-grandparents were from Sicily and the recipe dates back to them. When they came to live in New Orleans, they made three trips back and forth before actually settling here permanently. They would commute from Italy to New Orleans, stay in the United States for a year or two, make money and go home. On the third trip, my great-grandfather was able to bring the whole family over and stay.
When they finally settled, they set up a fruit and vegetable cart business. When he was 11, my grandfather — who was first-generation American — got in an accident and was run over by a streetcar. He lost both his legs below the knee. They kicked him out of school, and he only had a third-grade education, so he had to go to work. He went around with a little goat cart and sold produce in the summer and firewood and coal in the winter. In 1915 when he was 25, he had the idea to start selling the candy that his mother was making for special events and family celebrations. He would just take a piece here and there to sell, but people started asking for it and really liked it. He decided to sell candy full time. He designed the wagon that we use today so that he could make and pull the candy while rolling along down the road and selling it.
Have the flavors changed over the years?
K: Originally, he just made the base candy without any flavor in it. He would make the candy, pull it, cut it and wrap it. People loved it plain. Once the 1940s rolled around, consumers kind of got sophisticated and started to want flavors, so he tried a whole bunch of different kinds. It didn't work well to have too many flavors because he couldn't pull all the candy and make enough sales while on the move. He tried grape, orange and a pretty popular coconut, among others. He found out if he had 15 flavors, it took people too long to make up their mind, so he cut it back to chocolate, vanilla and strawberry like it is today.
Roman Candy Rum — which is a company run by my sister — has rum in all three of those flavors as well. She and her husband went down to Puerto Rico and came up with the idea for this flavored rum and asked me if they could use the Roman Candy name. They took it to Las Vegas for a wine and spirits convention recently and the chocolate rum won first prize. It's good stuff.
How do you decide where to take the cart each day?
K: It depends on where I think we're going to make the most money, but I don't really work up and down the street all day long because kids aren't home during the day. Now, we go places where there are people — lunch spots and such. The cart is pulled by a mule, and my new mule's name is Vidalia. I've had her about seven or eight months now, and she's learning all the things she needs to know. She has a really good personality and likes people. I've had about five mules in my life, but it takes a special one to do this job. They have to have a good temperament. Some mules are just too stubborn, don't have a good personality or don't want to work. I think Vidalia is going to be a keeper for me. — Sarah Baird