Confectionary treats come from basement sweet shop

February 14, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

You need three things to work at the Louis Rheb Candy Company: patience, a sweet tooth and a hair net.

Patience is required because every truffle and raisin cluster is hand made, hand wrapped and hand packed.

A sweet tooth almost goes without saying. Even the longest-tenured employees have not become jaded. They nibble the milk chocolate like everybody else.

And it is a house rule in the company's clean-as-Switzerland twin rowhouse basements that nothing goes in the candy but the ingredients.

Today, Valentine's Day, places third in sales in the great candy triumvirate, behind Christmas and Easter.

But don't count on a brief wait at Baltimore's two Rheb's candy counters. There will be lines, waiting and a little controlled confusion as customers ask for just one more opera cream to be wedged into a heart-shaped box.

"We'll be busy Tuesday too. You'd be surprised at the number of men who forget and come in on Feb. 15 to buy of box of candy to make up to their sweethearts," said third-generation chocolatier Wynn Harger the other day. His grandfather, Louis J. Rheb, founded the business in 1917.

The candy that local choco-addicts claim as their favorite is all made in the basements of a pair of Wilkens Avenue rowhouses. Some 35 employees bustle about the twin 15-foot-wide candy cellars. It's a compact work space that seems no impediment to getting the job done.

Most of the hand-dipped chocolates are made during the day. At night, a separate crew comes in to hand pack every non-pareil and maple cream in heavy cardboard boxes. It's only a 20-foot run from the candy factory, including a duck under the back porch and then through a door to Rheb's main sales counter.

Once the big boxes are displayed in Rheb's two stores, individual pieces of candy are once again hand packed according to customers' wishes in pound boxes or half-pound bags. Customers have been known to arrive with typed inventories of the individual candy selections they require in gift boxes.

Other old-fashioned candy ways prevail at this miniature plant. A number of the Rheb employees walk to work from other rowhouses in the St. Agnes neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore.

Hilda Rosenberger of Primson Avenue has dipped candy here for the past 21 years. "You just sit down and pick up the technique," she said the other day as she turned out tray after tray of walnut clusters.

Across from her is Ann Upton, a veteran candy dipper who learned candy making at age 15 at the old Martha Washington Candy Co. on Clay Street in downtown Baltimore. She works rapidly and dips 16 marshmallow squares in chocolate a minute. The candy ladies all seem to wear watches and rings and, despite some chocolate on their fingers, never even get their aprons soiled.

Some paint companies don't blend as many colors as the Rheb line of individual chocolates. Devotees know this chocolate confectionery census: vanilla, chocolate and almond butter creams, almond paste, maples, nougats, butter chips, lemon creams, sponges, pecan rolls, truffles, English toffees, mint creams, coconut kiss, crackers, cherries, peanut squares, cashew bark, almond clusters, dates, cherries, raisins, Brazil nuts, caramels, mint stix, opera creams and peanut butter melt-a-ways. And for those with delicate dieting consciences, there is sugar-free chocolate.

Come Easter, the kitchen staff starts making a seasonal specialty -- the candy egg. It also comes in varieties: vanilla butter cream, chocolate butter cream, a marbleized mixture of the two called sherbet, coconut cream, walnut cream, nut and fruit cream, truffle, marshmallow, peanut butter, raspberry cream, coconut bon bon, pecan and "karamarsh."

Louis Rheb, the firm's founder, was the son of a baker. He came by his love of sweets honestly and began experimenting with making taffies, brittles and fudge at his home. Newly married, he and his wife, Esther, set up housekeeping at 3352 Wilkens Ave., just opposite St. Agnes Hospital and still home to the company.

By 1917, the Rhebs were selling candies at two city markets. Louis Rheb had a stall at the Belair Market in Oldtown and Esther was selling confections at Hollins Market.

In time they consolidated the market trade at Lexington Market. The Rhebs converted a garage behind their Wilkens Avenue home to a candy store in 1950 and today it is the busiest Rheb location. Some days before Christmas there is a line out the door. The firm stops taking special orders for Christmas candy in June.

"We can only make and pack so much. We're only so big," Wynn Harger said.

He works alongside his mother, Esther Rheb Harger, the daughter of the firm's founder, who is behind the candy-selling counter.

"People who don't know any better buy the commercial brands like Russell Stover. Then they find us and never eat another piece of mass manufactured candy again," Mrs. Harger said.

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