Third-generation candy maker Mike Ratliff, 35, coils a long rope of warm peppermint candy, then shapes the circular confection against the base of an empty one-gallon pickle jar until he creates a three-dimensional basket that looks too pretty to eat.
"Every one of these is a little different because we make them all by hand," he says about the unique baskets that have become the signature product of Ratliff Candy Co. in Bristol, Tenn. (pop. 24,821).
"Each basket has its own personality," chimes in Ken Ratliff, 65, who hand-spins the malleable candy into a uniform roll as fast as his son can shape it.
Timing is everything for the father-son duo, who have about a minute to sculpt an edible basket before the candy cools and solidifies.
"If I work too fast, the candy will be too hot and the basket will fall," says Mike, who stretches the peppermint at 95 degrees.
Adds Ken: "But if you get it too cool, the candy will have hairline cracks when you try to shape it."
After more than half a century, the Ratliffs have mastered the creation of candy cane baskets. They had to. Beginning each September, they have less than four months to produce 7,000 large baskets and 5,000 smaller ones—in both peppermint and wintergreen—for shipment to customers across the United States in time for Christmas.
"These baskets are really our business now," says Ken, who also makes stick candy in other flavors. "There's just not many hand spinners left in America because machines make most stick candy now."
Hand-spun stick candy was the family's primary product when Ken's parents, Lewis and Hattie Ratliff, started the business in 1952 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Theirs was one of nine candy manufacturers in the Bristol area throughout most of the 20th century.
"The climate and barometric pressure here are perfect for making sugar candy," Ken says. "Candy making is a chemical process, and we have just the right altitude and humidity."
Today, only Ratliff and Helm's candy companies remain in Bristol due to buyouts and automation. Ratliff has survived, Ken says, because of the uniqueness of its candy cane baskets, which his father initially made in the late 1950s as Christmas gifts for the schoolteachers of Ken and his two sisters.
"The teachers just loved them, and people started asking who made these," Ken recalls. "Then, by word of mouth, we began to get orders and started wholesaling them."
Though Lewis Ratliff continued to focus on stick candy, Ken saw the baskets as the future when he joined the family business in 1970. "He began selling them to church groups and schools for fundraisers," Mike says. "It took off because it was something different."
Berenice Denton, 74, was one of Ken's first retail customers, ordering 100 baskets to peddle at the Christmas Village craft show in Nashville, Tenn.
"When I first saw these beautiful edible baskets, I said, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to have these.' I knew they would be a winner, and they were," says Denton, who estimates she's sold 10,000 Ratliff baskets over the years.
The baskets adorned the White House during Jimmy Carter's presidency and, from 1988 to 2001, were included in Bloomingdale's mail-order catalog. Some customers have placed orders with Ratliff for decades.
"This is not just another box of candy," Ken says. "And we don't consider ourselves just candy makers. We're artists."
To make the basket handles, Mike hand-braids three foot-long candy strands and stretches the sweet swath over a circular mold in the shape of an arch. "We don't tell how we attach the handles to the basket. It's a family secret," Mike says. "We've seen other companies that try to copy us, but we've never seen a basket like ours yet."
Ken credits his son for the artistry behind the baskets. "Mike does form a mighty pretty basket," Ken says with a gleam in his eye. "I always tell him that his grandfather would be proud of him."