Benne wafers weren’t the signature item at Colony Bake Shop. “Their mainstay was wedding cakes,” recalls Sheila Rix, who 25 years ago purchased the business with her husband, Peter.
Still, Rix suspects the bakery’s owners knew the regional delicacy could amount to something special. Even though the Colony Bake Shop weekly produced just 100 pounds of the salty, crackly cookie, Peter Kikos encoded the name of the recipe in a threadbare leather-bound book that the Rixes bought along with the downtown shop.
“I think it intrigued him,” Rix says, referencing Kikos’ Midwestern roots.
Kikos’ wife, Leila, who last week passed away at the age of 91, was born in Charleston, where she likely became acquainted with the use of sesame seeds in sweets. The treat wasn’t heavily promoted as a local souvenir until the latter-half of the 20th century; food writer Clementine Paddleford stoked interest with her 1951 travelogue for Gourmet magazine.
“What we ate every turn of the way and want to share with you are the benne seed wafers,” she wrote. “Never a moment when a visitor to Charleston hasn’t a benne seed stuck fast in a back tooth. Every Charleston kitchen makes the benne seed biscuit, the benne wafers to serve with the cocktails, to pass at teatime. Fragrant, nutty-sweet little trifles, whose secret is in the toasting of the seed before it’s added to the batter. Northerners and Westerners who never see a benne seed can buy the wafers by mail from a kitchen in the Old Slave Mart.”
And after 1953, tourists could buy them at the Kikoses’ Colony Bake Shop at 101 Broad St. Leila Kikos’ obituary identified the couple as “the creators of the well-known ‘Charleston Benne Wafer.’ ”
“The Colony House Bakery used to create the defining benne wafer for us: Crisp, salty and blonde,” Matt and Ted Lee wrote in “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.”
In 1970, the bakery relocated to 280 King St., the site of the former Federal Bake Shop. The News and Courier seven years later described the early morning scene there:
“By 9 a.m., not only has Kikos turned out about 300 loaves of bread, but he and a handful of employees have filled the glass display cases with thousands of pastries. Customers line up for gooey cinnamon fries, blueberry Danish and donuts just out of the oven.”
According to Rix, Leila Kikos ran the bakery’s office.
“She was a lovely lady,” Rix recalls. “A very gracious Southern woman.”
The company descended from Peter and Leila Kikos’ Colony Bake Shop is now known as the Olde Colony Bakery and located in Mount Pleasant. It produces 2,000 pounds of benne wafers a week.