by Christine Hansen
“The Sweet Melody of Fudge?”
Long before "American Idol" came to the masses, a young entrepreneur by the name of A.C. Marshall began recruiting singers for what he called interactive retail. In 1980, Marshal opened up a fudge store in the Outer Banks, North Carolina and instead of shutting customers out from the action, he included them in it. It was in this store where he created a “fudge theatre” providing entertainment and delicious fudge to his customers. He sang, he danced and interacted with the customers. This fusion of song and fudge became known as The Fudgery. Marshal franchised his business and brought it to Baltimore, where it has become one of the distinctive sounds of the city.
The Baltimore location was opened in 1981, just one year after Marshal made his debut in the Outer Banks. A savvy businessman, Marshall opened the new store in Baltimore 's Inner Harbor, the epicenter of Baltimore 's tourist attractions.
Although it is considered part of the family-owned franchise, the Baltimore Fudgery has made a name for itself. The managers take pride in their jobs and make sure to hire the best of the best. That means talent and personality.
“In order to get a job here, you have to sing to get an application," Paul E. Lewis, Baltimore's regional manager said. "You don't have to have a great quality voice, but you have to have an outgoing personality. Personality is big over having a voice, but a big strong voice gives an advantage,” he said.
Most employees have some sort of musical background or can at least carry some sort of tune. The employees are serious about the singing; they have a rehearsal every Sunday. They use this time to practice the routines and songs. This time is also used for Fudgery wannabes.
“Our rehearsals are also opportunities for people to audition for employment,” Lewis said. Much like "American Idol," the audience interacts with the singers, only there is no “voting off.”
The Fudgery provides a fun working environment but also could be used as a stepping stone for aspiring singers. In fact, the R&B group Dru Hill and rap group Ruff Endz made their musical debut by singing at the Fudgery in Baltimore. Dru Hill performed their Fudgery act on the Howie Mandel show and also appeared on Regis and Kathie Lee.
What songs do they sing? Each store is provided with a list of songs that the company has created. The Baltimore Fudgery also create their own songs as well.
“It's a collaboration of oldies, new songs and our creations and we turn them into fudge songs. A lot of times based on the nature of what we do, there's a lot of creativity and a lot of the really good songs we come up with are off the cuff,” Lewis said.
All the songs have to have a fudge twist, but the performers are free to make their own melodies. According to Lewis, Baltimore has a great mix of different cultures, making the sound unique from other places. Many of their recruits come from all over the city and county. Some have professional musical training, while others have natural talent, which makes their collaborations even more unique.
“It's different because you see different personalities and a mix of people from different parts of society. It brings different cultures and different personalities together. Like here, you can have a mix of R&B with classical,” he said.
Because the Fudgery in Baltimore brings its own special ingredients to Marshal's interactive retail, it has become a major tourist attraction.
“I definitely think we have become a destination for a lot of people that visit annually. I see people that have been coming here for years--we become a part of their vacation memories,” he said.
The performing and the singing make working at the Fudgery fun, but for Lewis, the best part of his job is watching his employees. “The best part of working here, for me, is watching the development of employees. We provide opportunities for kids who may not have the talent we are looking for, but we see something in them. They change from a shy introverted personality into a person with confidence and who is always smiling,” he said.
It may not be a national broadcast show, but the performers at this fudge shop always go home happy. Instead of listening to the frank and often rude remarks of someone like Simon Cowell, fudgery performers go home with the pride of knowing they made someone smile.
The offbeat songs and remakes of originals can be heard throughout the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, drawing in tourists and crowds alike. If the singing isn't enough, the smell of the sweet chocolaty and creamy fudge should draw in a few more curious patrons. At the Fudgery, customers have to work to get a tasty treat, making the enjoyment of fudgemaking into a theatrical production. Audiences clap their hands, and sway back and forth as they watch the process of fudge being made and hear the harmonious tunes of original fudge tunes sang.
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