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Destin's Grumpy Old Candy Maker Delivers Sweet Treats

Drive through Destin on Scenic Highway 98 all the way to the beach and you’ll be just about in the parking lot of the Destin Candy Marker—It’s a 7,000 square foot store filled with homemade taffy, chocolates and other confections. It’s a sweet shop, but the way it got there is a sordid story.

The Destin Candy Maker shop is lined with shelves of mouthwatering home-made candies and artifacts from the past that remind store-goers of the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Inside the store you’ll find something sure to bring a smile to your face, and Tom  Ehlke.  Ehlke  is the store’s owner, although his business card says Senior Mermaid Buyer, and the locals know him as “the grumpy old candy maker.”

“It started out years ago, when I started picking on the customers years ago, you know when they came in here. You know, you’re supposed to have fun when you’re in a candy store, So I started picking on the kids and on the people and bantering back and forth," Ehlke said.

Ehlke said he doesn’t mind being called grumpy, but he’s not so sure about old. He said he works hard at staying young, then scoops the last bite of a bowl of ice cream he’s having the get the taste of lunch out of his mouth. It’s chocolate with chocolate syrup.  

“Maybe that’s what’s preserving me. I don’t eat a lot of candy actually. This stuff’s for selling. It’s not for eating. I’ll have a little chocolate in the evening. I have a little bit every day,” He said.

Ehlke started his business in the 80s. He actually owned a hotel in Panama City at the time and his friend had a little gift shop.

“And he was selling saltwater taffy to the tourists that I know he bought in October for the following season and it was awful. It was just terrible,” Ehlke said.

Ehlke knew he could do better. He headed to Tennessee where he remembered eating some tastier taffy in the past.

“And I went up to Gatlinburg and I went to several places up there and they were afraid that I was going to go up there and open a store so they didn’t want to share any secrets,” he said.

But Ehlke wasn’t discouraged.

“So, I went down in front of this taffy store one night and I sat there in the window and I watched this young man in there making taffy and passing it out to the customers. So, about closing time I went in there and I said you know how to make this stuff. And he said ‘oh, yes sir.’ And I said you know where to buy all this ingredients and he said ‘yes sir.’ And I said so if you had a kitchen and all these ingredients you’d be able to make this candy and he said ‘yes sir, I believe I could.’”

So, Ehlke offered the young man a job.

“I said, have you ever thought of living in a condominium on the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City Beach? And he looked at me and he said, ‘No sir, but I’m flexible.’”

And that’s how Ehlke’s business got it’s start. Since then he’s opened more shops and is headquartered now in Destin. The young man has gone back to Tennessee—Ehlke said the beach just didn’t agree with him. But Ehlke and his employees still make fresh saltwater taffy with fresh ingredients just about every day. Though he said  it has a short shelf life.

“And it also has dairy in it is has evaporated milk, which is what makes it so much better.”

And Ehlke said he still makes it the old way, using antique equipment to cook, stretch, cut and wrap the chewy, creamy candy that is about the size of a fat nickel and comes wrapped in white waxed paper. Now Ehlke makes about 17 different flavors of taffy like watermelon, Key Lime, and Pina Colada – although he said he can make about any flavor you might want. He also makes chocolates, gummies and fudge, and caters special events. And he likes working in his store and buying mermaids to sell. Vanessa Jones works in the Destin store. She said her favorite part  of the job is people watching.

“It’s fun and it’s really, really laid back here and the people are nice and, of course you get to be around all the candy," Ehlke said.

And Ehlke said the people are one of his favorite parts too. He said it’s great to see repeat customers bringing their kids and even their grandkids for a sweet treat at one of his stores.