Ray and Betty Pollastrini owned and operated Pokey’s restaurant in downtown Carroll for 40 years, and Pokey’s caramel apples became a cherished part of the Carroll Band Day tradition.
Ray and Betty Pollastrini owned and operated Pokey’s restaurant in downtown Carroll for 40 years, and Pokey’s caramel apples became a cherished part of the Carroll Band Day tradition.
October 3, 2013

They've provided perfect harmony throughout the history of Carroll Band Day: Color, music, marching ... and Pokey's caramel apples.

Band Day will march into its 56th year on Saturday, Oct. 5, and Pokey's began business 75 years ago, introducing Carroll-area residents to caramel apples and turning them into a seasonal sensation. With Carroll hosting Band Day in the middle of the caramel apple season, which runs from September until shortly after Halloween, they became a match made in music and taste-bud heaven.

Carroll Band Day organizers are celebrating that connection, naming Ray and Betty Pollastrini, Pokey's owners and operators for

40 years Saturday's parade marshals. The restaurant may be closed today, but the Pokey's caramel-apple business still thrives today, thanks to family.

Ray and Betty will ride in a convertible near the front of the parade that will feature more than 55 entries, including high school and junior-high bands. The parade will kick off at 10:30 a.m. at the corner of 12th and Adams streets, proceed east to Court Street, south to Ninth Street and east into Graham Park, where judging of the bands takes place. The bands will end at Carroll Athletic Field stadium. Immediately following the parade, field performances will be held at the stadium along with presentation of trophies. The public is invited to attend.

For Ray and Betty, leading the parade will be a lot different look at Band Day.

In fact for decades in business at Pokey's, located midway through the former Band Day downtown route at the southeast corner of Fifth and Adams streets (now home of Sam's Sodas and Sandwiches), they were so busy on Band Day that they saw little of the parades.

"We sold a lot of apples for Band Day," Betty said in a recent interview at the Pollastrinis' home in northwest Carroll. "It was by far the biggest-selling day of the year, no doubt about it."

To satisfy that appetite the Pollastrinis and their children began making caramel apples the day before Band Day and resumed very early the next morning. When they opened Pokey's doors caramel apples filled the long counters in the restaurant plus much of the kitchen space. But by the end of the afternoon, few if any remained.

So how many caramel apples would they sell on Band Day? Hundreds? Over 1,000?

Ray just smiled and said, "It was a huge number."

And Betty said, "It was a lot of work, but it was well-worth-it. It was definitely the biggest day of the year for our business."

It was a big day not only for the caramel apples, but also hamburgers and other features on the menu. "We patted our own hamburgers," Ray said. "We had the best hamburgers in town because we seasoned our hamburgers."

Betty said of Pokey's caramel apples becoming a Band Day hit, "Many of the kids who came from other communities had not had caramel apples. Early on, when Band Day started, we had many very large bands come to town. Once they found out about the caramel apples, there'd be a line halfway down the block, kids waiting to come in and buy caramel apples."

Ray credits the success of the caramel-apple sales and Pokey's business overall to his dad, Ottavio Pollastrini, who opened the place as Carroll Candy Kitchen in 1938. Ottavio came from Italy to the United States as a young boy in 1908 and worked with a brother in Chicago before returning to his native country to join the Italian Army in World War I.

When Ottavio came back to the United States, he worked a couple of years with a brother, Amos, at Amos' candy kitchen in Clinton, Iowa, before Ottavio decided to start his own business. He explored possible opportunities in a few towns before finding a place he could buy in Carroll. He bought the candy-kitchen business from Ernest and Inez Marcucci, taking over in June 1938.

Ray said, "Back then, practically everywhere around in the area - Rockwell City, Jefferson, Denison, Logan - there were candy kitchens run by Italians."

At age 12 Ray started helping his dad in the business by selling candy and washing dishes.

"In those days," Ray said, "It was strictly the Candy Kitchen. Grocery stores didn't even have ice cream. So we sold a ton of homemade ice cream. Especially on Sundays, people would come after church and buy their packaged ice cream so they could take it home for Sunday dinner. Back in those days we didn't have refrigerators and freezers like we have today."

Over the years, hamburgers, sandwiches and french fries were added to the menu.

Although the business was the Candy Kitchen, it was also commonly called Pokey's. Ottavio was affectionately known as "Pokey," given the nickname because he was known for poking around town when others thought he should have been making candy. Ray and Betty changed the name to Pokey's after they acquired the business in 1957.

Shortly after he gained the business, Ottavio introduced Carroll to caramel apples in the fall of 1938.

Ray recalled with a laugh, "(Caramel apples) didn't sell big right away because people didn't quite understand. They asked, 'What's the deal with these things?' Some farmers would say, 'Caramel apples. Well, what's inside? But I've got a bunch of apples at home.' And they wouldn't buy them."

Betty said, "But it picked up after awhile. Everybody caught on and thought it was the best treat they could buy."

The Pollastrinis have kept their caramel recipe as well as other cooking touches a secret all these years.

"We prefer not to discuss it," Ray said of the recipe.

"It's a special recipe," Betty added. "It does produce an excellent caramel."

The Pollastrinis used jonathan apples and generously coated them with soft, rich caramel.

"(Jonathan apples) are firm and they're sweet enough, yet they're not too sweet," Ray said.

"There's a little bit of tartness there, and that with the caramel is a good combination," Betty said.

The Pollastrinis said the secret recipe and cooking method produce just the right texture.

"I think texture is the big factor," Betty said. "You have to be there watching it continuously until is just reaches that point of temperature."

"There's a special (temperature) number, and you don't want to go over that," Ray said.

Ray and Betty closed Pokey's in 1997, but sales of Pokey's caramel apples have not missed a season and remain strong today. The Pollastrinis' son-in-law Dave Nelson, married to Gina, took over the caramel-apple business. Today, in a room in the basement of his Carroll home, he uses the same equipment from Pokey's restaurant - copper kettle, wooden paddles, pot-belly stove and marble table. The caramel-apple production is a team effort with wife Gina and daughter Anna.

Pokey's caramel apples now are sold at Hy-Vee Food Stores in Carroll and Denison. Outside the caramel-apple season, Pokey's sells caramel squares at the two stores.

Betty and Ray enthusiastically praise Dave's talent for the business.

"He's learned everything well," Betty said. "He does an excellent job."

"I think he does just as good a job as I did," Ray said.

The restaurant business paid off for Ray and Betty. They met when Betty began working in the restaurant at age 16, and they married Oct. 18, 1954, at SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Carroll. The restaurant's success allowed them to pay for their children's high-school and college educations. Sons Mark and Matt and daughters Julie, Maria, Gina and Paula all graduated from Kuemper Catholic High School. (See accompanying biography box.) Three of the children participated in band and marched in Band Day - Mark on trombone, Gina on trumpet and Paula on drums. Meanwhile, Julie and Maria both played string bass in orchestra.

With their children active in music and sports at Kuemper, Ray and Betty volunteered many years in the school's parents club. Ray was treasurer. Betty continues to help these days with Kuemper mailings and the annual Alumni Phon-a-thon.

Betty, a 1951 graduate of St. Angela Academy and 1954 graduate of St. Anthony School of Nursing, both in Carroll, worked years as a nurse at St. Anthony Regional Hospital, including the obstetrics and medical-surgical areas as well as serving as night supervisor. She's now a member of St. Anthony Regional Hospital Auxiliary and coordinates volunteerism in the hospital's same-day-surgery department.

"I enjoy helping at the hospital," Betty said.

Ray is a 1947 graduate of Carroll High School. His graduation was delayed after he was called into Army infantry and served from 1944 to '46. During the final stages of World War II he fought in battles as the Allies crossed Europe to Berlin.

Ray formerly was an avid golfer, but due to health precaution this was the first season he did not hit the course.

Ray and Betty said their Band Day participation will be a ride down memory lane.

Betty said to Ray, "Don't you suppose it's because (Band Day) was such an exciting day for us? We were in business there 59 years."

Ray said, "We liked all the people we saw. We didn't really see the bands. We could maybe see over people's heads. But we could hear them. It was just an enjoyable day."