Just like Forrest Gump used to say, “life is like a box of chocolates.” For one Bitterroot Valley woman, it’s the truth.
Karen Peterson has created handmade chocolates in the small spare bedroom of her Hamilton, Montana home for over 25 years. “Karen and Kay’s Kandies” began as a dream from Peterson’s mother, Keosa “Kay” Maack, to run a candy store. The pair moved to Hamilton, opened up shop on Main Street, and then suddenly shut down the business only nine months later.
“The influx of people hadn’t moved to the valley yet, but we decided to keep making chocolate at Christmas,” Peterson said.
As the winter months approached, Karen and Kay got together to continue their Christmas chocolate tradition. The Parrot Confectionary in Helena guided them as they adventured together into the world of chocolate.
They peddled out of their beauty shop and quickly became popular by word of mouth. Karen and Kay’s Kandies expanded their creations to include delicately decorated fudge-filled Easter eggs and other holiday specialties. To this day, Karen still makes “22 or so” different types of chocolate for Christmas – not including pecan and peanut logs, caramel and marshmallow pinwheels, and an assortment of other treats.
The last couple years have been exceptionally hard for Peterson to continue making chocolate. In 2013, her lifelong business partner, friend, and mother passed away.
“She loved making caramels,” Peterson said as she reminisced. “I really debated this year if I was going to do it. I always say I won’t do it next year, but I’ve been saying that for years.”
For Peterson, chocolate making has turned into a hobby that she does on her days off from being a hairdresser at Jan’s Family Styling.
“I do it for money for Christmas shopping, the same reason people do bazaars,” Peterson said. “Now it’s just me and it’s really quite a challenge.”
Though Peterson’s mother is gone, chocolate still lives on in the family. Tony Maack, Peterson’s brother, owns “Papa’s Candy” in Harrison, Montana. He supplies Peterson with 10-pound bricks of raw chocolate every year, so nearly everything comes from within the family.
“He started after we did,” Peterson said. “He didn’t do candy until he retired.”
Peterson’s husband, Raymond, built all of the materials that she still uses to this day for chocolate. He designed a “chocolate table” that holds boxes filled with each type of sweet, cooling rack, and special metal, as well as PVC pipe dividers that hold the warm caramel in shape while it hardens.
Joni Koch, Peterson’s daughter-in-law, wraps each one or two-pound box of chocolate with sealing wrap before they are delivered. Travis Koch, Peterson’s grandson, usually gets roped into disassembling the chocolate room and transforming it back into a normal spare bedroom after the New Year.
“Something this good only happens once a year,” reads Karen and Kay’s Kandies business card. Karen loves it all, but says her favorites are nougat and mints and recommends that customers share the love and give it a try this Christmas.