Story by Holly Tarson
Photograph by Karen Pearson
The screen door swung open and two kids, no more than four years old, bounced into Samuel’s Sweet Shop in Rhinebeck. Their mother called from behind them, “This is a place to be well behaved.” Her comment seemed a little optimistic, given the abundance of sugar and vibrant colors and general excitement in the air. The children marveled at the array of gummy bears, Swedish Fish and Lego-shaped candies displayed in a matrix of bins, perfectly positioned for little hands. They peeked into the baskets of gooey brownies and blondies on the counter and peered into the glass case housing truffles and homemade peanut butter cups. Their mom whispered, “Look, kids, these are some of the biggest cookies you’ll ever see!” Her daughter, on the tiptoes of her sparkly red shoes, gazed at the bell jar piled high with saucer-sized cookies. Tempting as all those treats were, the gumball machine, taller than either of them, beckoned. The boy turned the crank, and out rolled a purple gumball. With thrilled little jumps his sister urged him, “Put it in your mouth!”
This could be a scene from 60 years ago in some small town in middle America. But thanks to Ira Gutner and a coterie of friends, Samuel’s Sweet Shop brings candy bliss to this little corner of Dutchess County every day.
Ira grew up in Westchester and lived in New York City for many years. As the story goes, when he was a boy, he used to go to football games at Yankee Stadium with his dad and uncle. On the way, they’d stop at “Pot Roast Sadie’s” for sandwiches and penny candy to share; it was the stuff of treasured childhood memories. Years later, Ira fell in love with the Hudson Valley and moved to Rhinebeck. He discovered tree-lined streets and mom-and-pop businesses, a special community for sure, with one piece missing. It didn’t have a candy store. Ira seized the opportunity to recreate his childhood happy place and share it with the residents of his new home town. In 1994, he opened a store named in honor of his uncle: Samuel’s.
This alone would be a lovely story of a man who became a social pillar of a small community and the symbiosis that grew between a candy store and a town. High school kids got their first jobs behind the counter. Regulars came for morning coffee and a chat. In 2001, Ira hired a shy 10th grader named John Traver, who said the job was an opportunity “to stand up tall and rise to the challenge,” and that he did. Ira told him, “John, this store will be yours one day.” The little shop became woven into the fabric of the town, and Ira was at the heart of that relationship, an ambassador to visitors and newcomers, a
second parent to the kids he took under his wing. But what should have been happily ever after took a heartbreaking—and magical—It’s a Wonderful Life kind of turn. In 2014, Ira Gutner passed away unexpectedly.
Ripples of shock spread through the community. Among the grieving residents were many close friends, including Hilarie Burton and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. They’d met Ira on their first visit to Rhinebeck. As actors with thriving careers, they never imagined living in a small Hudson Valley town. But when Jeff was shooting a movie in the area, they asked someone where to get coffee. The answer? “You have to go see Ira.” Hilarie explained, “They didn’t just say go to Samuel’s. It became a personal connection.” The nearby mountains, the preserved history, the small shops, they worked their magic, too. “Our nostalgia appeared out of the mist,” she said. “Here it is, it’s Rhinebeck. It was the perfect mix of our childhoods.” This was where they wanted to raise their son. And Ira became their go-to guy, an ally. As Hilarie put it, “It’s good to know a guy that has a guy for everything.” In the ensuing years, their friendship continued to grow. Jeff became one of those morning coffee regulars. The candy store became part of their lives.
It’s not surprising the community rallied around this little store when crisis struck, because that’s just the kind of thing that happens in a place like this—a place where people come to live authentic lives and revel in the unique kinship found in a small town. In the days that followed Ira’s passing, the future of Samuel’s looked uncertain until Jeff and Hilarie hatched a plan. Over dinner, they pitched the idea to their friends Paul and Julie Rudd, Andy Ostroy and Phoebe Jonas. As Andy remembers it:
Jeff has this great big heart and a lot of charm. It took 15 minutes for him to passionately appeal for us to get involved. What started out as “How can we help out?” quickly became “Wanna buy a candy store?” Have you seen Jeff? Kinda hard to turn him down when he flashes that devilish grin!
Without hesitation they all agreed. “It felt like it was the right thing to do, for the community, the kids, John Traver and for Ira’s legacy,” Andy said. By December of that year, they’d acquired the store.
What was happy news for the town was profound relief for John Traver, who’d been struggling to keep the shop open. John’s depth of gratitude is apparent when he talks about the special people who saw value in what Samuel’s brought to the community. And now, he manages the store with a dream team behind him. The corner shelves, still stocked with Twirl Pops, Charleston Chews and candy bracelets, are like a time machine, turning grown-ups into kids again. Those super-sized cookies are made by John’s mom and they are some of the biggest and tastiest around. While preserving the charm and intent of the original store, Samuel’s has evolved, too. In one of their earliest conversations, John and Hilarie brainstormed about how to expand their products to include more local items. “We want to be the trophy case for all these talented people we have in our community,” Hilarie said. They’ve succeeded. Shelves and counters are stylishly arranged with Augie Treats Granola from Pine Plains, Laurelei’s Kitchen Caramels from Elizaville, Moxie Cupcakes from New Paltz and packages of Rhinebeck’s own Me Oh My Thin Chocolate Chip Cookies.
The treats will make the kid in you happy, but the coffee is full-on adult satisfaction. Perhaps one of the most notable changes, Samuel’s coffee is now from Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn. It packs a rich wallop to start the day or rescue the afternoon. Pair a cup with a Megpie (an upscale Pop Tart–like pastry, originally sold once a week from a porch in Brooklyn, but now taking the nation by storm) and the world will look a little rosier.
Shops like Samuel’s form the bedrock of the communities that dot the landscape up and down the Hudson River. They turn a village into a destination, attracting tourists and weekenders alike. And they are the bread and butter that sustains the local economy when the short days of winter come to call. Samuel’s plays a vital role in the web of economic sustainability for the area. Neighborhood kids get jobs here and local micro-businesses benefit from this storefront conduit that bridges the gap between artisans and customers. The little stores that line Main Street and Market Street are social touchstones, too. Samuel’s is a warm and welcoming place to be that coaxes us out into the world when blustery weather makes bundling up at home mighty tempting.
With the ice-cream-sandwich days of summer behind us, Samuel’s Sweet Shop has followed Mother Nature’s lead. Peppermint bark and hot chocolate perfectly complement the village transformation into a winter wonderland. “Rhinebeck in December always makes me feel like a little girl again,” said Julie Rudd. “The Sinterklaas Parade, the beautifully lit trees and the magic that seems to fill the air…” It’s our very own small-town bliss, but it’s too lovely not to share. And even though we can’t bottle it up, a Samuel’s gift box comes pretty close.
When John was that high school kid, he helped Ira ship packages of holiday candy for the store’s fledgling mail-order business. Now, he has his own troop of teens and college kids filling orders for customers far and wide. And they don’t stop once January rolls around. Samuel’s ships all sorts of Hudson Valley goodies in beautiful packages all year long.
Lucky for us locals, we don’t have to wait for the FedEx truck. We can stop in to Samuel’s anytime for some caramel corn or a chocolate fix. While we’re there, let’s take a moment to breathe in the sweetness: A couple of tweens clutching bedazzled wallets, eyeing the donuts and cupcakes, then retreating to their table for whispered deliberations. Finally, they meander to the counter again, fairly sure of their decision. One Espresso Bean Donut. Two napkins.
Visit Samuel’s Sweet Shop at 42 East Market Street in Rhinebeck or on the web at www.samuelssweetshop.com.