A Lamme family portrait prompts a sweet walk down memory lane
Driving down Airport Boulevard near 53rd, you might have noticed an interesting red-and-white sign on the west side of the road. Hanging from a giant candy cane, this reclining fat lamb with the oddly splayed legs and Mona Lisa smile is the longtime icon for Lammes Candies, an Austin institution since the 19th century and one of the oldest family-run businesses in Texas.
Now officially know as Lammes Candies Since 1885 Inc., the company began life on Congress Avenue in the days when Austin had one commercial street and about 12,000 residents. William Wirt Lamme founded the Red Front Candy Factory in 1878 but, in an infamous poker game, lost the business in 1885. A few months later, his son, David Lamme, paid the $800 gambling debt and reclaimed the store. He opened Lammes Candies in July of 1885, and it has been the Lamme family business ever since.
In the early days, Lammes was a soda fountain as well as candy store, known primarily for ice cream and "gem," a frozen milk dessert similar to sherbet. David Lamme first produced the Texas Chewie Pecan Praline in 1892, after tinkering with the recipe for seven years. Using pecans gathered from trees along the Colorado River, the pralines were made only by special order until the 1920s. According to Pam Teich, current company president and David Lamme's great-granddaughter, the praline recipe has never changed, and only Texas pecans are used today. (She's still got the letter of receipt for the $800, too.)
David Lamme was quite the business innovator: He established the first soda fountain in Texas; hung the first neon sign in Austin (yes, it was the same lamb logo, developed to help people pronounce the name properly); acquired the first ammonia refrigerator in the region; and introduced the first hermetically sealed glass doors on Congress Avenue.
After a mere 60 years of running the company, David Lamme sold the business to his three children, who operated it until 1970, when grandson David Lamme Teich and his mother acquired it. Today, David Teich's own three children Pam Teich, Bryan Teich, and Lana Schmidt operate the business, the fifth generation of the Lamme family to do so. As well as the Airport Boulevard site, the company has offices and a wholesale distribution center in Round Rock, nine retail locations scattered from Round Rock to San Marcos, and a thriving mail-order component (www.lammes.com) that developed from the original praline special-order list.
Beyond the Shop Door
Alas, there is no longer a Lammes candy store on Congress Avenue, but since 1957, the unprepossessing red-and-white structure on Airport has housed the company's complete manufacturing operation, hidden behind a lively storefront stuffed to overflowing with an astonishing array of candies and requisite gift accoutrements.
When crossing the border from retail into manufacturing, your ticket is a pouffy white hairnet; it's the symbol that you've entered a different world. While not exactly Willy Wonka's domain, the muffled machine noises, the bustling employees, and, above all, the seductive aromas of caramelized sugar, chocolate, and toasted nuts inform the senses that you've arrived at the mother lode of traditional Austin confectionery.
According to longtime plant manager John Davis, the facility produces approximately 2,000 lbs. of candy a day: milk and dark chocolates, taffies, toffees, brittles, divinity, pralines, caramels, and more. The 25 plant employees not only make the candies but wrap and box them. While there are some automated processes, the bulk of the work is done carefully by hand. "I don't think most people realize," Davis says, "how intricate making quality candy is."
Keeping well out of the way, I watch as confectioners Matt Thorson and Joe Esparza heft a giant copper kettle off a burner and pour out 50 simmering pounds of white taffy across an enormous stainless steel cooling table.
Thorson and Esparza, who've been with Lammes for eight and five years respectively, are making peppermint kisses, a taffy composed of egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, and highly concentrated peppermint oil (a single ounce flavors 50 lbs. of candy). When cool enough to touch, Esparza gathers it into a beachball-sized mass and loads it into the taffy-pulling machine, an intricate hinged contraption that defies my powers of description, but somehow suspends the 50-lb. ball midair while it stretches and kneads the candy into an impossibly long red and white tube about the circumference of your arm. Another worker feeds this sticky warm candy into a different machine that further rolls the tube into the circumference of your thumb, nips it into inch-long bites, and wraps each one in cellophane. I can't tell you how incredibly luscious this peppermint candy is when it pops out warm, as gooey and soft as a marshmallow but more satisfying.
I also observe the action in the "praline tunnel," where 20,000 Texas Chewie Pecan Pralines are made daily. Something wonderful happens at each stage along this sweet conveyance, from the toasted pecans going in, to mixing in the caramel, to pouring on the milk chocolate (for the chocolate-covered version). Praline-maker extraordinaire Fay Simms has been on the job since 1976. Farther down the line, the candies are cooled, sorted, and scrupulously eyeballed for quality. Then they're individually wrapped, boxed, and weighed by hand. Once packaged, the candy travels to the retail stores or the Round Rock warehouse to be shipped (only between November and May) to Lammes aficionados across the planet.
The Queen of Candyland
Lammes president Pam Teich is no one's idea of Willy Wonka: She's a cheerful, no-nonsense bundle of energy whose trim figure belies the fact that she "eats candy every day. Sometimes I'm so busy, it's all I get till dinnertime."
Teich, who joined the company in 1976 and oversees sales and mail-order, is quick to point out that she and her two siblings collaborate in running the family's business. Bryan is in charge of operations and finance, and Lana does retail and human resources. "Each of us three has totally different skills and personalities," Pam Teich says. "We play off each other and, together, we have it covered; we're good to go. My father [David Lamme Teich] was king of this castle, and he could do it all. None of us have all the strengths he did."
Did Pam plan on joining the business? "When I was growing up, I was going to be a veterinarian or a Carol Burnett dancer. The business was always just here; when we were little, we helped with gift-wrapping boxes, earning something like five cents for a shelf of boxes. When I was older, I'd sometimes help in the retail stores during the season.
"I went to school for two semesters at North Texas State and just hated it. My parents wanted me to experience college, but I only wanted to work and support myself. So I came home and said to my dad, 'Put me to work.' I've been here ever since.
"My brother Bryan had every intention of joining the company. He worked here during summers, and he got a business degree. My sister Lana started out as a social worker, but came onboard later. We all do as much as we possibly can with what we've got to work with, until we absolutely have to hire another person or buy a new piece of equipment."
The Teichs' instinct to operate creatively with the resources available seems to be a natural family trait. Pam explains that from the beginning, the family did whatever they could think of to keep the business going. They maintained a fruit stand on the sidewalk in front of the Congress Avenue store. Pam says longtime Austin residents remember David Lamme standing outside, polishing his apples.
In addition to the soda shop (with curb service), the ice creams, and the pralines, Teich says they were "big into divinity and hand-rolled stick candy." Lily "Mamaw" Lamme (Pam's great-grandmother) made specialty cakes for weddings and birthdays that she sold through the shop. She had a trick for slicing the cakes before frosting them with a signature frothy icing. "When sugar rationing hit during the War, they did anything they could make a buck on; they even made tamales," Pam recalls. "It was called staying alive."
During the Fifties and Sixties, the company began automating some of the processes. Pam says that there was some growth, but her grandmother and siblings were satisfied with the status quo. "They were content with a couple of stores, a limited number of products, and a small wholesale operation. When my father took over in 1972, he determined there was a lot of potential that wasn't being tapped into. He made up his mind to take it to the next level, and he did.
"Since my father's time, our business philosophy has been monitored, conservative growth. We've had opportunities for some really huge accounts, but we would have had to make operational changes that we weren't willing to make. So, we turned them down. We make certain things certain ways, and we're not going to compromise that."
Pam explains how Lammes started doing chocolate-covered strawberries sometime between 1976 and 1980. They introduced the concept to Austin, and she remembers, "We really had to encourage people to even taste them." Now, they make 50,000-60,000 lbs. a year, January through May. They also make chocolate-covered grapes, which Pam prefers to the strawberries. "We developed them in 1996, the year there was a cyclospora scare with strawberries," she explains. "We brainstormed about what we could do instead. When things get thrown at you, you just have to figure out how to make it all work. Grapes haven't caught on like the strawberries, but they are wonderful."
Working the Land
More than half of its 80 employees have worked at Lammes for longer than 10 years; Mildred Walston, 81, has been employed there for an amazing 65 years. Walston, who has managed the retail and mail-order operations, started as a clerk and carhop at the Congress Avenue soda shop.
Pam notes that the candy business is hard work, very seasonal, and has grueling hours, particularly during the holidays. So, what's the secret to such employee longevity? "It's a friendly work atmosphere, and we're all comfortable here. We know our employees. That's important. And, once people know what they're doing, we let them do their jobs. I don't ask anyone to do anything that I won't do myself, including taking out the trash.
"Our company Christmas party is always at 7:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve; it's the only time that everyone can make it at the same time. It's kind of a funny tradition we have. Like chefs and florists, candy makers don't get much in the way of holidays."
Pam Teich has a number of thoughts about the future of Lammes. She notes, ironically, that one of the challenges now is to get better-known locally; there are a lot of Austin residents who didn't grow up here, and didn't grow up eating Lammes candies.
"After all my years here," she says, "I've got great people in place. I give 98 percent credit to my team. I facilitate the ball rolling, but I'm not the ball. I don't know when I'll be ready to leave, but for the past four years, I've stopped working on weekends. I'm getting a life. It's great; I've gotten over feeling guilty when I'm not here."
Teich notes that there are seven children, ages 5 to 20, in the next generation of the family. She says she's encouraging her kids to think about other things than coming to work for the company. "I think it's important to at least work elsewhere first. I realize what kind of expectations I'd have for them, and I want them to experience some of the rest of the world. It's complicated enough with the three of us currently in charge; everything that affects the business affects the family, too.
"Coming into the business as my father's daughter, I had to work twice as hard to prove myself. The expectations were higher for me, both from my father and from the employees. To prove yourself to employees, you have to give 150 percent. But if I had to do it again, I wouldn't do anything different. I loved working with my dad [David Lamme Teich died in 2004]. I still feel like he's looking over my shoulder."