Caruso’s continues to offer sweets, eats during COVID-19 closures

DOWAGIAC — One local candy and soda shop that survived during the Great Depression is now hopeful it will continue serving the community until well after the coronavirus pandemic has ended.

On Thursday afternoon, Julie Johnson, the owner of Caruso’s Candy and Soda Shop, 130 S. Front St., told the story of how Caruso’s was opened by her grandparents, Antonio and Emilia Caruso, in 1922. Seven years later, the Great Depression would begin and last until 1933.

“Somehow, this business thrived during the depression,” Johnson said. “I heard from my uncle that my grandfather was able to purchase a bunch of sugar before the depression. That was what helped them sustain.”

The extra inventory of sugar was what helped support the restaurant back then. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the candy and soda shop is relying on carryout and curbside deliveries after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all restaurants to shut down  dine-in service on March 16.

The decision to stay open was an easy one for Johnson, who worked in retail optical management for 27 years before deciding to invest more time into the store she purchased in 2005.

“I knew I was going to continue to stay open as long as I can because we need to survive,” she said behind a counter of glasses. “I feel confident in the fact that we are properly disinfecting, sanitizing and taking all of the safety measures that are recommended to keep not only the customers, but our employees safe as well.”

Johnson said she knows days are going to be tough, but considers her business one of the lucky ones.

“A lot of the businesses are not able to stay open and are going to have it a little tougher than those of us that can at least maintain with the little bit we are getting,” Johnson said, referencing Whitmer’s “stay-at-home” executive order limiting only essential businesses to stay open.

Before the COVID-19 mandate, Johnson said Caruso’s had carryout orders, but not to the extent it does now.

Cooking on the same gas stove in the backroom and using the same copper kettles and wooden paddles, Johnson said all the recipes have remained consistent throughout the years.

Especially during the COVID-19 situation, Johnson has seen several menu items surge in purchases.

“I think people are finding comfort in sweets,” she said. “We are selling a lot of ice cream and a lot of candy.”

As Easter approaches, Johnson said the shop would lose some of its Easter revenue, which is a big part of its spring business.

“We still have quite a few customers that are wanting their traditional Easter candies, but it is not going to be anywhere close to having the actual foot traffic,” she said.

Overall, Johnson attributes Caruso’s survival through the Great Depression and so far through the COVID-19 pandemic to the community. This September, Caruso’s will celebrate 98 years of business.

“It helps to have a great community that supports us and families that are on their fourth or fifth generations of Caruso’s customers,” she said. “The support is wonderful that we are getting. I encourage people to continue that support even after this ends and patronize their downtown businesses and small family businesses. We not only need them now, but we need them later, too.”

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