A Taste of The Divine
May 27th, 2004
By David Farrow
Heaven must be missing an angel. That’s one’s initial thought when one first tastes Caroline Ragsdale Reutter’s caramel cake. What started as a cottage industry has now grown into a full-blown business, Caroline’s Cakes, Inc., which last year filled more than 20,000 orders.
Mrs. Reutter says it wasn’t planned; it just fell into her lap. Born in Charleston, she grew up in Lake City and went to the Holy City a couple of times a year to visit her grandmother on Legare Street. She graduated from Ashley Hall School in 1970 and then went to Mount Vernon College in Washington, D.C. where a lot of her Ashley Hall friends went. She stayed in the capital because so many of her friends ended up there.
She explains, “There, I worked for Frankie Welch who was a dress designer. I married Chick Reutter. He’d grown up on the water up on the Cape, and I’d grown up on the coast of South Carolina, so we moved out to Annapolis.
“When I moved to Annapolis, I became a mother and a volunteer — did the blue-box-tied-up-in-a-white-ribbon routine. I was a church volunteer, school volunteer, club volunteer; I was a super volunteer. I raised our two boys, Charles, who is now 25 and is into fine art photography in New York, and Richard who is graduating from Hobart College in New York this year.”
She says all of her entertaining has been very influenced by her mother’s great entertaining skills, which flourished in part due to her late father, Tommy Ragsdale, was in the tobacco business.
“There was no place in Lake City for my father to take his clients, so he would bring his clients to the house, and when I grew up, we never knew who was going to be sitting down at the table with us,” Mrs. Reutter explains. “They could be from Britain, Taiwan, Japan, Virginia or North Carolina. Entertaining was truly very much a part of my growing up in Lake City. Cookouts literally formulated on summer afternoons in my house in minutes. People would just drop by — people did that in those days — and before you knew it, we had a cook out. Somebody would go home and bring potato salad, somebody else would bring something else, the kids would play flash tag on the lawn and everything thing we did revolved around food.
“Growing up in a small Southern town, there’s a very special community that revolved around the church where every brought their fried chicken or their macaroni salad or their deviled eggs or catfish stew, and you always knew whose was the best. Then you came to the dessert table, and you always knew who had the best pie, chocolate cake or caramel cake. You always knew that, when Miss Jones or Miss Rollins walked through the door with that Tupperware, there was a seven-layer caramel cake, and you wanted to be first in line for it. So I really grew up more in a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn atmosphere than you had in the streets of Charleston.”
She declares that she has found it very interesting that her business has brought back her youth. Her house has a wrap-around porch with a Pawley’s Island hammock — nostalgia created by design.
She states: “I look around at the things that I have brought into my comfort zone, and it is the same structure, values and manners that we were brought up with in the South. Food is what brought us together. As I moved into my married life, and moved out to Annapolis and started entertaining, I was making Katie Salmons’ aspic, my mother’s cheese biscuits and caramel cake and stuff like that. All of my entertaining reflected the aspects that people of the Lowcountry knew so well.”
She says the way she got into making cakes was that she had a Christening luncheon for Richard and served a caramel cake as desert. She laughs as she explains: “I just served this cake very innocently, and several people there just went nuts over it. I actually had a little old lady in South Carolina who would bake them for me, and she eventually became ill and stopped baking them. It was not something that I set out to do; it just grew word of mouth. These people would call me and just rave about the caramel cake. I ended up with about 5,000 on my mailing list.”
She says everything kicked into high gear while she was planning her house and had just finished the kitchen counters. She was out in the garden one afternoon when the phone rang. It was the U.S. Trust Company out of Palm Beach. They asked her if she did corporate orders and she said, “Yes.”
Mrs. Reutter says she was thinking 35 to 50 cakes at a time. They told her that they would like to send her caramel cake as a gift to clients for Christmas.
She said, “That’s wonderful. How many would you like me to send you?”
They said, “2,000.”
She chuckles as she stated, “ In the old Tommy Ragsdale spirit, I said, ‘Oh, no problem.’ I had two pots and a double oven.
“I went up to Chick’s office, and I said, ‘Guess what? It’s April and I just got my first Christmas order.’
“He said, “That’s great, Sport! How many did they order?’
“I said, ‘2,000.’
“He said, ‘You accepted the order, didn’t you?’
“I said, ‘Yes I did. Now, I’m off to incorporate. Anyway, I incorporated, and we did a very successful job getting those cakes shipped and managing the growth of my young company. I completed a test kitchen that I was putting in my basement and made it into as close to a commercial kitchen as I could.”
She then started looking for a place she could move the kitchen, and the business just started growing. She started doing trunk and boutique shows up and down the East Coast. They are charity shows, in which she would pay a percentage of the sales to whatever cause it was. Some were for breast cancer research, historical preservation societies and so forth. Mrs. Reutter says it’s been a wonderful way for her to give back and grow the business at the same time. She says she sees people from South Carolina and all the other places she has lived all the time.
One other clever idea she took from her childhood she garnered from her trips to the beach. “When I was a kid, we’d go down to Myrtle Beach from Lake City and we’d see all these Burma Shave signs,” she chortles. “My brother, Smith, and I used to love to read those signs. Well, my store is in a shopping center that no one even knows is there. So I put one sign out on Route 50 that says ‘Caroline’s Cakes’ with an arrow that brings you off the exit. Then I have another couple of signs that say ‘Caroline’s Cakes’ that lead you to turn on the access road. Then we have a bunch of signs that say, “Where” “You” “Can” “Have” “Your cake” “And eat it, too.”
“Two years ago, I had this idea. Route 50 is one large traffic jam with all the people trying to get over the Bay Bridge to get to the beach for the weekend for hours upon hours, so I had the idea that there was a caramel cake customer in every fourth car. I made this big shiny canvas banner that said, ‘Caroline’s Caramel Cakes: Great For the Beach. Exit 30.’
“When they got there I sat right in front of the parking lot, and I had a large green umbrella that I got from the garden club. In my Suburban, I had 27 cakes, and I sat out there in my little straw hat and people would get off Route 50 and buy cakes on the way to the beach. They used to get off because they saw people selling tomatoes and watermelons on the side of the road, but they never saw people selling cakes. They just came by to see how someone could sell cakes on the side of the road.”
Mrs. Reutter says she loves making cakes because it is such a “happy give-back business. We make people happy; we make people smile. When I go to shows or people come here, you’ve never heard people say, ‘Oh, my word, “ so many times. I’ve actually thought about calling them the ‘Oh, my word” cakes. People’s eyes roll back and their head and say that so much.”
Caroline’s Cakes have become so well known that the Food Network will soon feature her the second half of this year. Who knows where the business will go from there.
Caroline Ragsdale Reutter credits part of her success from the way she makes her cakes. “We make it the old fashioned way,” she says. “There’s no powdered sugar, and it takes all day to make the icing — we really do it right. I don’t know why I’m here or how I got here, but I’m grateful that I’m where I am.”
Mrs. Reutter is certainly correct about one thing: The first thing you will say when you try a taste is, “Oh my gosh!”
To find out more go to www.carolinescakes.com. To order call Toll free 888-801-CAKE or e-mail her at . You’ll be so glad you did.