Tom Ehlke wore a thick gold chain pendant around his neck that glinted just beneath his blue patterned Lacoste button-down. He bought the pendant — a Spanish coin found by famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher — while he was in the Florida Keys years ago.
His one good eye scanned the room behind tortoiseshell Burberry frames, and his left eye was noticeably milky and pupil-less; glazed over with an ice-blue sheen.
“A doctor in Panama City blinded me. He botched up a cataract surgery. Several years after it happened, I couldn’t even drive down the street where his office was,” said Ehlke.
Ehlke, who is affectionately known as the “Grouchy Old Candymaker” thanks to an old fairy tale-themed advertising campaign for one of his candy stores, is mentally as sharp as his fashion sense.
He greeted customers as they entered his Candymaker store located right off Scenic Highway 98 near The Back Porch restaurant.
“How are you ladies doing?” and “Come on in, the water’s fine!”
The store is known mostly known for its salt water taffy, which Ehlke brought to the area over 30 years ago by way of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“I went down to Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in Gatlinburg and sat on a bench outside," Ehlke said. "I watched this guy make taffy all evening.”
Ehlke asked the man if he knew the taffy recipe and offered him free board in a condominium overlooking the Gulf if he moved to Panama City to help open Ehlke’s first candy store, called the Candy Basket.
Ehlke’s goal was to make the freshest possible salt water taffy using ingredients like evaporated milk.
“It meant that the candy had a shorter shelf life, but it was a much tastier and better product,” he said.
Ehlke is a businessman who has done a little bit of everything. He started his career in media and radio sales and later purchased several storefronts in Panama City Beach, where he opened two Candy Basket shops about 30 years ago.
Ehlke relocated to Destin after his divorce and ventured into real estate development, buying old run-down motels and condominiums to renovate and then sell. Back then, the ocean-front townhomes he renovated were on the market for about $50,000.
The Candymaker store is an eclectic reflection of Ehlke’s hard work, and his sense of humor is evident in the items he sells in the store. In addition to homemade chocolate candy, caramel apples and salt water taffy, he sells several home décor pieces — namely mermaid figurines, lamps, and wall art. There’s a Zoltar Fortune Teller machine that occasionally cuts into the hum of candy machines and visitor’s voices.
“I am Zoltar, the great gypsy, and I can see your fortune. Come see it too, no?”
Old fashioned lollipops fanned out in colorful displays next to a shelf lined with sunscreen bottles and mini pirate ship replicas.
“My official title is Vice President and Senior Mermaid Buyer. If it ain’t fun, I’m not going to do it,” he said. “It keeps me young.”