MARSHALL - For the past 10 years, Steve and Kay Klein, owners of the Walnut Grove Mercantile in Marshall, have been sharing their specialty fudge and gift baskets with people in the community and across the country.
"When we built our store, one of our wholesale customers who had a store recommended we look into fudge because they thought it was a pretty good deal for them," Steve Klein said. "So when we opened the store here 10 years ago, we had fudge. It worked well."
Soon after, the Kleins were approached by a group in Marshall who wanted to do a fudge fundraiser. After the fundraiser worked out so well, the Kleins thought they were really on to something.
"Six or seven years ago, the marching band in Marshall decided to do fundraising with our fudge," Steve Klein said. "Every year, the band sells those cards as their fundraiser. Then we said, 'if it works for the band here, maybe it'll work for bands somewhere else, too.' Before we knew it, we found church groups, sports groups, dance teams, prom committees, service organizations, volleyball teams, softball and all sorts of other teams."
The fudge formulas are all developed at the Walnut Grove Mercantile, under the Klein Foods label, which Steve's father Raymond, who will turn 100 years old this week, started back in 1951 as the Klein Honey Farm. Raymond Klein purchased a beekeeping business in Marshall that year and quickly developed award-winning honey products.
Steve and Kay Klein took over the business in 1992 when Raymond retired. For the past 20 years, the Kleins have enjoyed the proceeds from specialty honey products. The fudge looks to become another successful line for the Kleins.
"The Marshall marching band starts in August and they sell the fudge through Labor Day," Steve Klein said. "They keep 50 percent of the fundraiser. Since the marching band does such a good job, it's basically their thing in town."
But the fudge fundraising efforts have expanded to include 27 other states.
"We just sent one out to a color guard group out in California," Klein said. "It's all over the place. They basically take pre-orders and submit their order to us. Then we make it up for them and send it out. "
Demands for the flavorful fudge pick up considerably before the holidays.
"The holidays are a big time because people are looking to buy some treats," Klein said. "People like to eat it. I'm sure a lot of what we've made for the holidays is long gone."
The Kleins also see a high demand for gift baskets during Christmastime in addition to the fudge requests.
"We do a lot of gift baskets for corporate things," Klein said. "So we do a lot of things for the holidays and conventions, meetings and organizations. Christmas is a very big time for us, with both the fudge and gift baskets. We make a lot of them."
In all, there are about 30 different flavors of fudge to choose from, with anywhere from 12-15 of them offered at any given time.
"Some are here all the time and we rotate a few with that group," Klein said. "Every time you come in, you'll probably see something a little bit different."
Every spring, the Kleins also hold a contest that is open to anyone who wants to enter their idea for a fudge flavor. A few years ago, the salted nut roll idea won, so now it's offered occasionally.
"They don't have to make it, they just have to give us the idea of what they'd like to see in a fudge," Klein said. "The salted nut roll is now one of the popular ones."
In Klein's experience, certain trends seem to have developed with fudge favorites at Walnut Grove Mercantile.
"For instance, the top guy flavors are chocolate walnut and chocolate peanut butter," he said. "Women like plain chocolate and chewy praline. Chocolate mint and chocolate amaretto are also the most popular with women. Seniors like the maple nut. Over time, you see these little trends."
The fudge is sold in either half-pound or one-pound measurements. Other unique flavors include candy cane swirl, pumpkin pie, rocky road, eggnog and raspberry swirl.