Baxley’s Chocolates has just opened for the day, and father-daughter owners Steve and Lauren Baxley are moving around the open kitchen, hard at work. Lauren transports a batch of freshly
Baxley’s Chocolates has just opened for the day, and father-daughter owners Steve and Lauren Baxley are moving around the open kitchen, hard at work.
Lauren transports a batch of freshly coated sugarplums to the granite countertop, a surface commonly found in old-fashioned candy shops that helps confections cool faster. Sugarplums — bite-size morsels of minced walnuts, apricots, dates, and molasses, all coated in chocolate — are a Christmastime delicacy in Sylva, and for the Baxleys themselves: Steve’s father, Russell, developed the family recipe in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Steve, in his black chef coat and matching pillbox cap, oversees a Little Dipper tempering machine. Steve bought the device more than 30 years ago to melt chocolate for family favorites like coconut truffles and peanut butter meltaways. The machine and Lauren have been helping make chocolate for about the same amount of time.
Steve’s father, Russell, is there in the shop, too, smiling out of framed photos that show him in a dress shirt, tie, and lab coat. The late inventor of the Baxleys’ famous sugarplums never sold chocolate, but instead spent his career as a food scientist after serving as a quality control specialist at the Panama Canal Zone during World War II. He worked at peanut companies, first in his home state of Alabama and then for Pert Laboratories in Edenton. One photo on the wall captures a 13-year-old Lauren with her arms wrapped around Russell’s waist, standing in front of the building where he worked on Peanut Drive. “They always had roasted peanuts in a cart out front,” Lauren says, “and that was one of my favorite parts of going — getting to smell those peanuts and eat them.”
Just below that photo hang two more pictures of Russell — looking much like Steve does now, their jet black hair a shared trait that never seems to fade regardless of age — standing in the Chowan County kitchen where the family’s now-famous sugarplums were born.
• • •
Russell and Steve began experimenting with different chocolate treats in the early ’80s, when they’d get together each Thanksgiving — either in Steve’s kitchen in Cullowhee or Russell’s in Edenton — and make confections to give to friends and family. Steve; his wife, Beth; and Lauren had moved to the mountains for his new job at Western Carolina University, but they always made time for chocolate-making with Russell.
Beth and a young Lauren would use melon ballers to mold the sugarplum centers into uniform parcels and place them on trays before dipping them into chocolate, a practice they still use in the shop today. Beth remembers Lauren standing on a stool in front of the home tempering machine, dipping sugarplums into chocolate, emulating her father and grandfather. “I’m sure it wasn’t for long,” Lauren says, laughing. “It really requires more fine motor skills than I probably had at the time.”
Soon, the Baxleys were selling chocolate at the WCU Christmas Bazaar, an annual event where local artists and makers would gather and sell their goods for the holidays. The family’s business, then known as Three Bears Chocolates, participated in the event from the mid-’80s into the early ’90s, and always set up their table next to Different Drummer Pottery from Maggie Valley. “We would barter chocolate for pottery,” Beth remembers.
The family sold sugarplums, peanut butter meltaways, truffles, Catamount Paws — a caramel-and-nut candy named for the WCU mascot — and lollipops. “Everybody my age remembers that we did lollipops, which we still sell,” Lauren says. “We’ll have people come in now who would get them when they were kids.”
Today, those customers shop for their own little ones in the store in downtown Sylva, choosing unicorn- and cat-shaped lollipops out of the same wooden stand that sat on the Baxleys’ Christmas Bazaar table. Now, that stand resides on a glass cabinet full of antique Mr. Peanut toys, gifts, and packaging that’s been collected by the family or donated by the antiques shop down the street. The stand is one of the first things shoppers see — Lauren likes to say that both it and Steve have held up quite well.
• • •
As the Baxleys shared their creations with the community at WCU, their chocolate-making venture became so popular that they spent each Thanksgiving preparing for the bazaar and the holiday season. They soon found themselves with a full-fledged I Love Lucy-style chocolate assembly line.
Even when the family couldn’t be together, Russell continued experimenting with ingredients and measurements in his kitchen in Edenton. “With Dad, you don’t just do one thing and then you’re done,” Steve says.
Russell finally devised his perfect sugarplum recipe in 1989 — the handwritten version, in his trademark print letters, is on display in the shop. The recipe that the Baxleys use today is similar to the original, but with a few tweaks. “We did add a little bit of molasses,” Steve says. “Not very much, but, you know, we’re Southern.”
Chocolate-making took over both kitchens for the next 20 years, and even when Russell died in 2001, Steve, Beth, and Lauren carried on. “I think the last year we made [chocolates] before we opened the shop, we probably made 2,000 pieces,” Beth says. For years, the family didn’t have a full Thanksgiving meal because the residual heat from the oven or the humidity from a running dishwasher would have put their chocolates in jeopardy. Beth often brought home a Thanksgiving meal from her job at Harris Regional Hospital, and, between batches of sugarplums, they’d sit together on the floor to eat.
Things changed when the family opened their first brick-and-mortar shop in Sylva in 2015. Lauren, who had moved to Charlotte and back after graduating from WCU, joined her father in this next step of the chocolate business. “It was two generations of knowledge that I didn’t want to see just gone,” she says. The shop was so successful that, three years later, they moved to a larger building on Main Street, more than doubling their space. Finally, “after about 30 years,” Lauren says, “[we] actually made a complete Thanksgiving dinner.”
• • •
Amid a winter forest of pines and firs, Christmastime settles across Sylva. Dozens of decorated trees sprout from the sloped yard of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, from which Main Street unfurls. Along this road, a large “B” hangs over a chocolate-colored awning. Inside, small pieces of chocolate conceal an array of flavors and ideas. Fillings range from sweet (coconut, Irish cream, handmade marshmallow) to savory (orange chili, peanut butter, coffee) to experimental (Earl Grey, bourbon, scuppernong wine).
While their menu has expanded, the Baxleys will always credit Russell’s sugarplums as the candy that started it all. But why sugarplums? Perhaps there was a sugarplum revival in the ’80s? Or maybe Russell saw an untapped market for these candies?
“Absolutely not,” Steve says. They weren’t popular at the time, and still aren’t in high demand for those who aren’t longtime Baxley’s customers, he admits. He speculates that the candy’s roots in England might have been of interest to his father, or maybe Russell saw potential in traditional recipes’ use of nuts, but he’s not quite sure. “[It’s one of] the things you don’t ask your parents but then you wish, when you can’t ask them anymore, that you had,” Steve says.
But it might not matter what Russell decided to create back in his lab in the ’80s. What matters, for Steve, are the years of experimenting in his father’s tiny Edenton kitchen, the three decades of Thanksgiving takeout meals, and his daughter’s childhood spent learning and loving a practice that she’ll carry on in the shop that he and Russell always dreamed of.
“His foundation was really important,” Steve says, then pauses, visions of chocolate-making with his daughter and father dancing in his head. He looks down at the sugarplum recipe that started it all, then up at his wife and daughter. His eyes glisten, and his face lights up with a smile, one so reminiscent of Russell’s in the pictures on the shop’s walls. “I’m really happy we’re still making sugarplums.”print it