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Brittle Battle 

Spokane's legacy soft peanut brittle connects with locals, while a well-financed upstart aims to go national.

click to enlarge Brutties' brittle - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Brutties' brittle

When the Davenport Hotel reopened on July 15, 2002, Bruttles’ Soft Peanut Butter Brittle was an essential part of the luxury. It was the focal point of their turndown service, taking the place of the traditional mint on the pillow. (The brittle, for fear of allergic reactions, was wrapped and left on the nightstand.) Bruttles had a small shop in the hotel, catered certain hotel events and weddings, and did special gift packages for VIP clients.

Sweet like traditional peanut brittle but softer and crumblier — it doesn’t stick in the teeth — with just enough whole peanuts for salt and texture, Bruttles’ brittle became the kind of souvenir travelers would take home from trips to Spokane. On return trips, even when they wouldn’t stay at the Davenport, people would still stop by Bruttles’ 200-square-foot shop on the Davenport’s south end.

The soft peanut brittle became synonymous with the Davenport, and, for a certain type of traveler, synonymous with Spokane.

And then, last July, eight years to the day it opened, Bruttles was gone from the Davenport completely.

It came as a shock to Bruttles owner Carol Measel.

On vacation, she received a voicemail saying the store had 30 days to vacate. “[The Davenport] said, ‘we’re coming up with our own peanut brittle, thanks for being a great partner,’ and everything like that,” Measel recalls.

It was less of a surprise to the Davenport. Matt Jensen, the hotel’s director of marketing, says that when Bruttles upped their prices in April 2010, the books stopped balancing. Though the benefit of the peanut brittle as a luxurious value-add was undeniable, “with that price increase it just didn’t make sense for us.”

There were signs as early as the previous December, when the hotel cut their turndown service, but Measel still says they didn’t see the July notice to vacate coming. “It came as a surprise, to say the least.”

Bruttles had a factory in Spokane Valley and a shop in Coeur d’Alene. They also did turndown service at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

An initial thought, according to Measel’s friend and occasional employee, Tara Pittenger, was to just close up shop in Spokane and survive on the business brought from Coeur d’Alene.

Measel talks about those moments it in terms of mild panic. “Do I close?” she asked herself. “Am I going to lay off 17 people? What about the lease on my factory?”

It wasn’t a coincidence that the Davenport became synonymous with soft peanut brittle. A former chocolate dipper in the hotel’s chocolate shop named Sophia Gerkensmeyer came up with the recipe in the early 1950s using a slab of marble she bought from the hotel. The brittle comes out thick and tacky. To pull it into the proper shape and thickness, you need a surface like chilled marble to keep it from sticking.

The Davenport views Gerkensmeyer’s creation as a part of its legacy, and so does Carol Measel. Sophia Gerkensmeyer was her great aunt.

Last Friday, we conducted a blind taste test with the 23 Inlander employees who happened to be around the office in the afternoon. Bruttles won handily, though several remarks suggest both companies have a killer product. “They were both exquisite,” said one tester.

Another said, “At the end of the day, I thought, ‘I’d eat either one.’”

To create their own recipe, Jensen says the Davenport used their banquet kitchen as a test facility, enlisting executive chef Bryan Franz as head of research and development. It took months to perfect. All the production still happens there in the banquet kitchen, with the bagging and boxing done in an adjacent room.

Carol Measel didn’t consider closing down long. The same day the voicemail came, she called the Davenport store and asked her employees to take a look around the neighborhood for vacant retail spaces. They found one directly across the street.

Bruttles signed a lease in five days and had moved out in nine. The new location, at 828 W. Sprague, opened on July 16. Within a week, Measel had put out a sign in front of the shop that read:

Free Turn Down
Bring your room key in from:
The Davenport Hotel
The Davenport Towers
Hotel Lusso
For a free sample and discount

When the Davenport launched its soft brittle in October, it priced itself under Bruttles (a pound of Bruttles is $12; Davenport’s is $11). The hotel is running a holiday special for 15 percent off their brittle. Measel is honoring the coupon.

In the intervening months, both Bruttles and the Davenport have adopted a conciliatory attitude — and both feel like their businesses have benefitted from the parting of ways.

Measel says the Davenport’s constant stream of well-heeled travelers was a psychological crutch, and where before the shop’s business was 85 to 90 percent Davenport customers, it is now roughly 85 percent local traffic. Her mail-order business is strong and, after a tough first couple of months, Bruttles’ sales are up 35 percent over last December.

Jensen says the Davenport’s business is equally steady. “We can’t keep the stuff on the shelves,” he says.

Measel says her plan is to continue expanding the local business. She feels like she’s just scratched the surface.

The Davenport’s goals are a bit loftier. “We want to get this in every Costco in the country,” Jensen says. “Wish us luck on that.”

Bruttles • 828 W. Sprague • Mon-Sat 9 am-7 pm, Sun 9 am-4 pm • 624-2394
The Davenport Signature Store • 10 S. Post St. • Mon-Fri 7 am-9 pm, Sat 9 am-9 pm, Sun 9 am-6 pm • 789-7222

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