cold; six degrees and windy. I walk up Columbia Street, a scarf
wrapped over my face. Peering from beneath my fur hat pulled low,
I spy a giant yellow lollypop suspended from the front of 741 Columbia.
Below the lollypop is a burgundy and gold sign, Vasilow’s.
I’m here to meet Jim Vasilow. It’s warm inside, a sweet,
magical world. The aroma of chocolate is intense, my eyes widen
and suddenly I’m an eight year old kid. Chocolate’s
one of those things people are passionate about, endorphins or not,
it’s euphoric. Good chocolate just makes you feel good.
The shelves and counters and curved glass display case are a cornucopia
of confectionary delight. There are clusters and creams and caramels
and cordials, non-pareils and fudge, fifty flavors of Jelly Belly
jelly beans, chocolate covered pretzels and raisins, jelly rings,
crackers and nuts and crunches and barks, chocolate covered licorice
and potato chips, almond butter crunch, peanut brittle and Chop
Suey, a specialty of Jim’s grandfather, and truffles, oh,
truffles, be still my heart. I consider truffles the Lana Turner,
the Hedy Lamar, the Garbo of chocolate.
Jim drags me away from the counter and we sit down for a chat in
the kitchen. Jim’s grandfather opened the original Vasilow’s
on Warren Street in Hudson in 1923. Vasilow’s was a landmark
on Warren Street until it closed in 1969.
Young Jim once told his father he wanted to be a candy maker, but
his father discouraged him, so Jim forgot about it. Jim grew up
in Hudson like any other kid and went off to college, but an odd
set of circumstances forced him home.
Jim’s father retired as president of V & O Press at fifty
five and hired on part time at Van Tassel Tool. When Jiggs Van Tassel
died, a sense of duty brought Jim home to help his father run the
place. Jim learned the business under fire and learned it well.
He remained there twenty-one years. “The best part was I got
to know my father,” he reflects but it was not his passion.
When his father died in 1996, Jim knew it was time to follow his
own path, “I knew there was something else I needed to do
with my life, but I didn’t know what.”
Inspiration often comes at the most unlikely moments. Jim and his
wife Kate were camping and woke to pouring rain. With the day ruined
they packed it in and went to the Columbia Diner for breakfast.
As they left, Jim looked in the window of Suttys candy store two
doors down. “It hit me right then and there, an epiphany I
guess. I knew I wanted to be a candy maker.”
Jim was driven, sought out knowledge wherever people would teach
him. He learned his first truffle recipe from a woman in Orwigsburg,
Pennsylvania. He learned the craft, educated himself, joined the
RCI, Retail Confectioners International, was even accepted to their
prestigious and intensive candy school.
I mentioned Chop Suey as one of his grandfather’s specialties;
peanut brittle with coconut instead of peanuts. Ribbon candy was
another specialty and Jim wanted to make it every Christmas. So,
he scoured the Internet until his persistence paid off and finally
found the equipment he needed, a ribbon candy “former.”
Chicago was willing to teach him how to use it, so he packed up
the heavy metal contraption and booked a flight. Jim was on the
second flight to depart Albany after September 11. “It really
is a candy maker,” he insisted and eventually cleared security.
Jim and Kate searched for the right location and once they found
it spent fourteen exhausting months rehabilitating and creating
Vasilow’s Confectionery, Inc.
Jim gives me a lesson in the step-by-step operation of the “Enrober,”
the machine used to chocolate coat candy. “So that’s
the Lucy end down there?” I ask, pointing to the far end of
the apparatus. Hilarious images of Lucille Ball, her mouth bulging
with bonbons, wildly battling an out of control “Enrober,”
fill my head.
Jim laughs, “Yes, that’s the Lucy end.”
Quality is of utmost importance to Jim. Suppliers occasionally advise
him on the practicality of using cost cutting ingredients. “It
tastes ‘almost’ the same, they tell me,” Jim shakes
his head and grins, “I don’t want almost!” For
his truffles he uses top quality heavy cream, real butter and gets
his 10 pound chocolate blocks from the same company his grandfather
used. That’s why they’re so delicious.
Jim created a special valentine treat this year; molded, heart shaped
chocolate boxes filled with truffles. There’re special baskets
and assortments, too. So fellas, there is no reason not to “Wow”
her on Valentine’s Day.
When you follow your heart doors open, dreams live. I like people
who follow their dreams, for them the life force is so abundant
they can barely contain it. Jim and Kate are like that.
Good luck to Vasilow’s and thanks for letting me be a kid
in a candy store again.
We’ll talk next time From The Road.