Caroline Ragsdale Reutter possessed the skills of a great baker.
But her kindness, warmth, energy, and determination were ingredients the late entrepreneur used to grow her Spartanburg-based venture Caroline’s Cakes and leave a lasting impression on the community she loved.
Reutter lost her battle with ovarian cancer on July 15, in Houston, Texas. She was 66.
She is survived by her husband Charles Ernest “Chick” Reutter III and her two sons, Charles Ernest Reutter IV and Richard Ragsdale Reutter and his wife Eleanor Cole Boyle, all of Spartanburg; and two brothers, Thomas Smith Ragsdale III and his wife, Suzy, and Charles Schall Ragsdale and his wife, Emily, both of Georgetown, Washington D.C.
“She lit up a lot of lives,” Chick said.
“We would often discuss one of the businesses she loved – Starbucks. She regarded Howard Schultz as a near deity,” he adds. “He used to say that Starbucks’ business was not in coffee, but in bringing people together. And that’s the way she felt about her business.”
Caroline Reutter was born March 13, 1951 in Charleston to Carol Schall Ragsdale and the late Thomas Smith Ragsdale Jr. She grew up in Lake City, S.C., and was educated at Ashley Hall in Charleston and Mt. Vernon College in Mt. Vernon, Mo.
In 1972, Caroline was living near Washington D.C. and serving on then-President Richard Nixon’s Pay Board, when she met Chick in Georgetown. The couple was married May 4, 1974 in Lake City.
Caroline’s passion for baking was passed down by her mother and grandmother, her husband said. However, it was a lady in her hometown that provided her with the curiosity to pursue the caramel cake recipe that propelled Caroline’s baking career.
“When Richard was born, her mother brought us a caramel cake made by an old lady from Lake City,” Chick said. “Every time we went to Lake City, our friends would ask us to bring them back a cake. Pretty soon we didn’t have any room in the car for kids because it was full of cakes. Caroline decided that she was going to make them herself.”
Caroline began making cakes in the kitchen of the couple’s home in Annapolis, Md.
Chick said she could make eight cakes per day. She would leave the cakes on a joggling board and wicker sofa on the front porch of their home, and later a freezer in the garage, for customers to pick up. She trusted her customers to leave their money in a red tin.
“In 18 years, not once did anyone stiff her on a cake,” Chick said. “That’s the kind of respect people had for her passion.”
He remembered the first big order his wife received.
“The phone rang and it was the U.S. Trust Co., which was a part of Charles Schwab, now Bank of America,” Chick said. “They wanted to give out cakes as a corporate Christmas gift. She asked them how many and they said 2,000. She said, ‘Sure!’ And then we went off and figured out how to do it. It showed me that there was extreme interest in this cake.”
The couple used the momentum from that sale to build out a commercial kitchen in their basement. They later leased a space, but Chick knew they would have to look for something bigger.
“She outgrew that space the day she moved in,” he said.
And then came Hollywood.
Chick said his wife had read Kathryn Stockett 2009 novel “The Help.”
As the novel was being adapted into a screenplay for the 2011 film that was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture in 2012, Caroline was discussing the movie with fans online.
She began conversing with a lady, who turned out to be actress Octavia Spencer. Spencer was set to play the part of Minny Jackson in the film.
In the novel, Stockett referenced a caramel cake that the Minny character made. Spencer called Reutter and the two women quickly became friends.
“She started pumping out cakes, sending them to Steven Spielberg, Octavia Spencer, Chris Columbus, and everyone else involved in the film,” Chick said.
Caroline won the film’s leadership over. Her signature seven-layer caramel cake, comprised of moist yellow cake layers and caramel icing, was featured in the film.
“One never knows what impact something like this might have, but for us, it is fun,” Reutter said in a statement just a few days before the 84th Academy Awards in February 2012. “We are just having a great time playing with this little company, coming up with new and sometimes crazy ideas, and getting to know more great people across this great country. So I hope you are all enjoying this ride with us.”
It was also in early 2012 that the Reutters relocated their business to Spartanburg.
Chick said the decision was made in 2011 after a close friend of the family introduced them to his cousin, Spartanburg businessman George Dean Johnson Jr.
“We went off on trip with George and [Susan] Susu. When we came back, George called up Caroline and asked her, ‘Why don’t you come down to Spartanburg,’” Chick said. “That snowballed into us coming down here.”
The couple then received a call from former Gov. Mark Sanford, who also asked them to make the move to South Carolina. They even received incentives under the economic development project codenamed “Project Sugar,” which was led by Spartanburg businesswoman Martha Albergotti, Chick said.
“South Carolina really rolled out the red carpet for us,” he said.
Caroline’s Cakes moved into a 25,000-square-foot facility at 925 Beaumont Avenue behind the Pinewood Shopping Center.
In 2015, the company was named the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s James B. Thompson Small Business of the Year.
“When we notified Caroline of her recognition, her immediate reaction was to provide cake, at no charge, for the 600 guests,” said Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Chamber. “That was Caroline.”
Other local business leaders also spoke highly of the impression Caroline made on the community.
“Caroline was a devoted mother who built a national brand,” said Geordy Johnson, CEO of Spartanburg-based Johnson Development Associates. “She showed her customers comfort, warmth, and hospitality. She was an entrepreneurial role model. Our community is fortunate that she returned to South Carolina and settled in Spartanburg. She will be deeply missed.”
The Reutters youngest son, Richard, joined the company 13 years ago. Their eldest, Charles, came on board a few years ago.
“People knew almost everything about my mom,” Richard said. “The way she carried herself and lived was outward.”
Both men said they were grateful for the time they were able to spend with their mother and plan to continue operating the company.
“It’s what she would have done,” Charles said. “There are some nerves at play, but we’re already into the brainstorming phase and getting ready for the holiday season.”
Charles said the 2016 holiday season was the first time his mother was not present, as she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was receiving treatment.
“She will always be with me,” Richard said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to baking cakes and doing what she would have wanted us to do.”
Chick remembered that one of the things his wife enjoyed most was baking cakes for charities across the country to sell.
“Caroline was so proud of how much she was able to give back,” he said.
Charles said the company has about 15 employees. That number doubles during the holiday season.
The company’s menu has grown from its original seven-layer caramel cake to include a wide variety of cakes, entrees, and gift items.
Chick said there is room for growth at the Spartanburg facility, and the family has no plans to leave anytime soon.
“The definition of support is here in Spartanburg,” Richard said.
Reutter’s funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at the Episcopal Church of the Advent at 141 Advent St. in downtown Spartanburg. After the service, family and friends will celebrate her life at the Piedmont Club.
Gifts in honor of Reutter can be made to M.D. Anderson Gynecological Oncology Center at 1515 Holcomb Boulevard, Unit 1491, Houston, Texas 77030-400; the Gibbs Cancer Center at 101 Wood Street, Spartanburg, S.C. 29303; or the charity of one’s choice.
For more information, visit: www.carolinescakes.com