The first thing you notice when you enter The Candyman on Main Road in Orient is the aroma of chocolate…or maybe heaven. It immediately lets you know something wonderful is going on in the kitchen.
It’s only weeks until Christmas and owners Jim and Debbie Michta’s operation is in high gear as evidenced by the hundreds of chocolate Santas, nonpareil wreaths, red and green foil-wrapped candies and dozens of other holiday-themed treats displayed throughout the store.
In the back of the shop an immaculate kitchen is prepped for today’s important chore of making candy canes. On top of a large marble island sit bottles of flavoring, red food coloring and a large amber-colored puddle of melted sugar mixed with secret ingredients. Jim Michta begins to knead and fold the warm candy until it starts to solidify, scoring it with a metal bar, folding, scoring, folding until it’s just the right consistency. He lifts the heavy loaf and hoists it onto a giant hook mounted on the wall, where he begins to pull it over and over. As he does, the amber color disappears and it magically turns pearly white.
This transformation is caused by scientific processes involving things like crystal structures and glucose molecules, but Jim offers a simpler explanation.
“By pulling you’re getting a lot of air in. The air bubbles in the sugar make it white. It starts out a yellowish color but the repeated stretching makes it white.”
As he pulls, Debbie is mixing red food coloring into a small portion of the warm candy to make the traditional stripes. The red part has no flavoring, just color; the flavor — peppermint or cinnamon — is in the white part.
When Jim is satisfied with the consistency of the candy cane dough, he drops it onto the marble and Debbie begins molding it into a pillow shape. Jim preps the colored portions, forming them into snakes, which he positions on top of the white pillow. He then precisely folds the dough so that when it is pulled it will produce a thick rope of white with ribbons of red running through it.
When he’s ready he begins pulling and snipping off portions, passing them to Debbie, who lays them in the antique candy cutter, a simple but efficient machine that is well over 100 years old, and in seconds dozens of tiny candy cane pillows pop out. The canes themselves are shaped by hand.
The recipe for the candy canes was created by Debbie’s grandfather William Heins. After emigrating to the United States from Germany sometime around 1920, according to Debbie, Heins was apprenticed to a chocolatier, did some farming, then ran a luncheonette in Huntington where he sold candy. After retiring to Orient he continued making candy at his home; his customers referred to him as “The Candyman.” In 1980 when he opened for business at the present location, that’s what he named his shop.
Debbie was born into the candy world.
“Literally,” she says. “I was born on Easter Sunday. My mother said I had to wait until the busy time was over to be born.” Jim was previously employed as a welder and sheet metal mechanic in product development at Grumman. The couple has been running the shop since 1988, at times with help from their daughter, a registered nurse.
Making candy canes is labor-intensive and tricky, so only a few batches are made each season. Regular customers know to call ahead with orders; any canes put out for sale in the shop are snatched up immediately.
In 2011 Jim made a giant candy cane several feet long “for a special person.” Unsatisfied with the first attempt — he felt the candy was too grainy — the “mistake” turned into a Christmas treat for some local horses.
Once the batch of candy canes is finished, Jim offers a quick tour of the rooms behind the storefront. On the eastern side of the building is a large room where the specialty chocolates are made. A long conveyor carries the candy through the process of transforming into the delicious chocolate covered creams and centers The Candyman is famous for. In another room are trays stacked with chocolate houses; a large order had just come in. After constructing all the houses, Jim will decorate each one individually with colored frostings and candies.
Jim is very proud of the fact that nearly all they candy they sell is made on the premises. “Most candy shops don’t smell like this. Every day we have something cooking, peanut brittle, caramel. We make it all here except for things like jelly beans. We can’t do that here. A lot of shops get their candy from a factory or warehouse and call it homemade. We make ours here. I should hang a sign outside telling people that,” he says.
And how does a candy maker resist all of the scrumptious treats he’s surrounded by every day?
“Yeah, I eat a lot of chocolate,” says Jim. “Too much.”
The Candyman is open seven days a week, closing for the month of January each year.
SoutholdLOCAL photos by Katharine Schroeder