Everyone is your boss when you run a business

Charles Booe – Owner, Rebecca Ruth Candy – Frankfort, Kentucky

Feature | Frankfort, Kentucky | 07 January 2022
Charles Booe is a third-generation candy maker and the owner of Kentucky’s famous confectioner, Rebecca Ruth Candy. The candy company was started by his grandmother, Ruth Booe back in 1919 and is known for their bourbon ball chocolates. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“My grandmother started this business back in 1919 and our family business has been around now for three generations,” says Charles Booe, candy maker and owner of Rebecca Ruth Candy in Frankfort, Kentucky. “We make chocolate bourbon balls and about a hundred or so other chocolate varieties.”

The business was originally co-founded by his grandmother Ruth Booe (née Hanly) and Rebecca Gooch, who were both substitute teachers. They started the candy business at a time when very few women were independent and in business. “Their move to start the business was pretty avant-garde at the time,” Charles admits.

“When they started the business, the fashion of naming businesses would have been in paternal styles such as Smith & Sons for example, but they opted to use a maternalistic style using their first names because they might get married later and change their last names” Booe explains.

Ruth got married in 1924, and after getting married in 1929, Rebecca decided to sell her half of the business to Ruth who later passed the business over to her only son John, who then he passed it on to his son Charles.

In talking about their 102 years of existence and operation in Kentucky, where the candy company is a source of pride, Charles highlights the various changes the business has been through.

Most of the candy is hand made by employees on site and much of the machinery and equipment on site dates back to the 1960s and is still in use today. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“As a candy company, we’ve been through a lot of political and technological changes,” he emphasizes. “We had the Great Depression which we survived, then we had Prohibition, World War II, and sugar rationing. People actually brought us their sugar rations during the war for us to make candy, and they would also bring us their coffee tins, to put our candy in,” he reveals.

Most of the candy making equipment which can be seen at the production facility and on the museum tours the candy company offers, date back to the 1960s and some are still in use today. Most of the candy is handmade and put in the Rebecca Ruth boxes in which they are sold.

The bourbon ball chocolate, garnished with a pecan on top, is a Kentucky delicacy and is what the confectioner is famous which brings together two popular and well-loved Kentucky flavors.

“During the 1936 sesquicentennial celebration of the city of Frankfort, a lady by the name of Eleanor Hume Offutt made a statement saying that the two best tastes in Kentucky were Kentucky bourbon and Miss Ruth’s Mint Kentucky Colonel chocolate. So my grandmother took the idea and worked on a recipe in the kitchen for two years to include bourbon in candy to make the single best taste,” Charles proudly states. “The bourbon ball chocolate was introduced to our customers in 1938,” he confirms.

“The Mother of Bourbon Balls, is what my grandmother became known as, following this invention,” he beams while looking up at picture of Ruth Booe, mounted on the wall.

Growing up, Charles who studied business and art in college, says he didn’t know whether he would join the family business. “As a kid I would help out by sweeping and mopping the floors and cleaning the equipment. I was just a kid and was doing what I was asked to do, so I didn’t think about it much,” he remembers.

In addition to chocolate bourbon balls, which are a mix of chocolate and Kentucky bourbon, the candy maker makes more than 100 other chocolate varieties. Customers can buy the iconic candy from the factory in Frankfort or have orders shipped to them. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
He also shares that despite his grandmother being a successful businesswoman, she prioritized family over business, and to him she was his grandmother first. “To me she was always my grandmother first, and that was her priority,” he stresses. “It was not until much later, as I was going through old newspapers and things like letters she had written, that I got a sense of just how savvy of a businesswoman she was beyond just being my grandmother.”

On the subject of legacy and where he sees the company going in the next couple of years, Charles who is a father, believes “nothing is a given.” “A kid can have the skills, but if they don’t have the passion it doesn’t matter, they’re not going to stay with it,” he underscores.

“As of right now my kids are still in college, so we don't know if they'll be in the business later or not. But if they do decide to run the business, I will have to back off and let them find their way. I can’t be too overbearing, and they will have to lean in. I have had them work in the business with me, so that they can learn the skills and how things work. So if they come into the business later, they will have the necessary skill sets.”

Booe also acknowledges that the changes in the economy may also affect the business and says he doesn’t know if there will even be a business for his kids in 30 years. “We may be at the end of an era after 100 years, but then again I don’t know,” he confesses.

Being an entrepreneur, Charles has learnt many things, but there is one lesson that particularly stands out for him. “You know people say they want to open a business so that they can work for themselves. The paradox is that when you work for yourself, everyone becomes your boss,” he alludes.

For Charles work means “adding value,” and he describes it as being a part of his identity and an overall lifestyle. “I run a family business so everything I do breathes that business, because that is who I am,” he confidently affirms. Perhaps in the same way his grandmother may have also said to people all those years back as she was working hard to perfect her candy recipes.