Lexington couple discovers love is sweeter the second time around
By Kevin Nance
It’s been apparent for years to their friends and family that James Caudill — better known to many as “Dad” of Dad’s Favorites Deli, the award-winning sandwich shop and cheese-spread maker at Garden Springs Shopping Center — would one day marry his high school sweetheart, Susan Bratton.
But it wasn’t always apparent to the couple themselves. Although they grew up two blocks from each other in Lexington’s Cardinal Valley neighborhood and dated each other during their senior year at Lafayette High School, they went to different colleges — she to the University of Kentucky, he to Western Kentucky — and ended up married to other people.
Even 33 years later, after they reconnected, moved in together and built Dad’s Favorites into the thriving business it is today, wedding bells stayed conspicuously silent a few more years.
On October 2, 2021 — finally, it happened.
Dad and Susan got married.
“When we got together for the second time, we knew it was meant to be,” James Caudill, 65, says in a recent interview. “We talked about marriage back then, but we didn’t feel we needed to be in a hurry about it. This year during the pandemic, it started coming up again. But we didn’t want to go to the courthouse and we didn’t want it to be a big deal. No gifts. No big to-do. I told Susan, ‘This is between us.’”
They got hitched at their house overlooking Herrington Lake in a small ceremony officiated by the Rev. Barrett Coffman, a regular at Dad’s Favorites. Among only four guests were Susan’s mother, Jenny Gray, and Scotty and Carolyn Middleton, the latter Susan’s best friend since 10th grade. (It was at Carolyn’s first wedding, way back in 1974, where the romantic sparks between James and Susan had first flown.)
By the time they exchanged their vows, James’s broccoli casserole was already in the oven… ‘All I had to do when the ceremony was over was put the steaks on the grill.’
“Total happiness — I don’t think I quit smiling,” Carolyn says of the wedding on the lake. “When they went their separate ways all those years ago, I felt like somewhere down the road they would end up back together, and it finally happened.”
Food was a non-factor in their relationship while they were still teenagers, but by the time James and Susan ran into each other on a street in Lexington in 2005 and the nascent flames started flickering again, he had learned a thing or two in the kitchen. In their second courtship, these skills became his secret weapon.
The way to Susan’s heart, it turned out, was through her stomach.
“He was so nice, but at first I thought, ‘No, I already dated him,’” Susan — now Susan Caudill — remembers. “But he kept telling me what a good cook he was, and that I needed to come over to dinner. Finally I went to his house and he made fresh homemade chicken noodle soup that was incredible. I said, ‘Oh my gosh — anytime you want me here, I’m here.’”
Once they settled into life together, Susan continued to marvel at his culinary prowess. “Sometimes we’d make some of the recipes I had and he’d go, ‘Eh, it’s OK.’ Then he’d put his magic touch on it and it would be amazing.”
James cast some of his most potent culinary spells on his remarkably tasty pimento cheese and other cheese spreads, which first earned a following at UK football tailgate parties. They began selling the spreads at Lexington farmer’s markets, then scaled up by founding the Dad’s Favorites brand, sold at Kroger and other stores through the South and Midwest, in 2008. (The name “Dad’s Favorites” harks back to Caudill’s days as a basketball, baseball and soccer coach in town; friends and teammates of his sons, Jay and Jeff, found it a good idea to drop by for a snack or sandwich at the Caudill kitchen after practice. Some of them called him Dad, and whatever he made that particular day was inevitably their favorite.)
James, Susan, Jay and Jeff finally moved Dad’s Favorites into an off-the-beaten-path location at the end of an arcade at Garden Springs Shopping Center on Lane Allen Road in 2009. At first, the plan was to use the site just for making and marketing their cheese spreads. But seamstress Martha Fain, owner of Alterations and Sew Much More just across the hall, advised him to double up with a soup-and-sandwich business.
“When the special’s gone,” James says, “it’s gone.” Dad’s Asiago pot-roast sandwich was recently named one of the best in the country on MSNBC.
He took her advice, and before he knew it, Dad’s Favorites Deli was a hit.
“I told him that all of us in the shops here would benefit from it, but I didn’t think it would catch on the way it did,” Martha recalls. “Word of mouth started building, the crowds got bigger and bigger and people were lining up for the food, up and down the hallway.”
Dad’s daily special meat sandwiches, each made fresh and featuring one of his signature cheese spreads — Asiago sun-dried tomato, chipotle cheddar, green chili Jack, pepper Jack, smoky pimento, Stampin Ground cheddar and Swiss — are now weekly must-haves for locals and food tourists from all over. (Martha is partial to the Thursday special, a thick, tangy reuben.) It’s wise to get there early. “When the special’s gone,” James says, “it’s gone.” Dad’s gets consistently high online ratings and reviews, and its Asiago pot-roast sandwich was recently named one of the best in the country on MSNBC.
James is beginning to pull back from the business, he says, giving more responsibility to his sons so that he and Susan can have more time to relax and enjoy life as newlyweds. But he has no plans to stop working his magic in their kitchen at home. When the discussion came around to who would cater their wedding feast last month, there was no real question.
By the time they exchanged their vows, James’s broccoli casserole was already in the oven. The buttermilk ranch dressing was ready to go on the salad. And the steaks were already mostly cooked, sous vide.
“All I had to do when the ceremony was over,” he says, “was put the steaks on the grill.”
This article also appears on page 10 and 11 of the November 2021 print edition of Ace.
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