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Meet the Candyman: Inventor of Jelly Belly sets up shop in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Standing in the doorway of a former Krunchtime Health Club, the Candyman spreads his arms wide.

"I'm the best-kept secret in the world!"

He's wearing shorts, flip-flops and a 10-gallon cowboy hat covered in jelly beans and rhinestones. Behind him is Candyman Kitchens, more than 6,000 square feet of candy, Necco wafers and Bit-O-Honey and Angel Mints. It's David Klein's next big thing.

You've even heard of one. Klein is the inventor of Jelly Belly.

"Feel how heavy that is. Nine pounds," he says, proffering the hat. "I walked into Nudie's shop in North Hollywood. He did all the rhinestone suits for Elvis. I said, 'I need some clothes,' and he looked at me and said, 'Son, Sears and Roebuck is a mile north.' Then I said, 'I need a suit to wear on the Mike Douglas Show.' He made me this hat and a shirt and pants. I don't know where the pants are. I tell people I lost them in a poker game."

A mom and three kids have wandered into the store. Klein, 70, seizes the moment.

"I'm the man who invented the Jelly Belly!"

He shows them the world's largest gummy bear — a 5-pound bear equal to 1,400 regular bears. Maybe they believe his credentials and maybe they don't. They breathe a collective "whoa."

• • •

It was 8:15 p.m. on a Tuesday in 1976 and Happy Days was on. With one eye on Ralph and Potsie, David Klein chatted with a buddy on the phone.

"What if we open a candy store that just sells one thing?" he asked. "Jelly beans."

"You don't want to carry lollipops or rock candy?" his friend said.

"No. No distractions."

By 9 p.m., when Laverne & Shirley ended, Klein's wife returned from her La Leche League.

"Rebecca," he said, "we're going into the jelly bean business."

• • •

Klein had been a nut man.

Shelled walnuts originally, sold wholesale in 25-pound bags. Then he expanded with almonds, pecans and such.

Working for candy distributor Garvey Nut in Temple City, Calif., Klein says he sold pecans to Famous Amos. But in 1976, he had no credit and $800 to his name. He persuaded Northern California manufacturer Herman Goelitz Candy Co. to make mini jelly beans in flavors no one had ever seen before.

"And I wanted the shell to be flavored, as well. Previously, the shells were all the same flavor."

His first flavor was watermelon, "the first two-tone jelly bean ever produced," followed by licorice, root beer, cherry and green apple. He called them Jelly Belly, inspired by the musician Lead Belly.

He sold them from a counter at Fosselman's Ice Cream Co. in Alhambra, Calif., $2 per pound, a hefty price back then. A good day was $25, with Bob and Jim Fosselman getting half the proceeds right off the top.

Klein's story goes, he called a reporter named Steve Fox at the Associated Press.

"We have the only jelly bean store in the world," he said, a stretch at best.

When Fox arrived at Fosselman's, Klein said, he had all his friends there as phony customers buying pounds of Jelly Bellies. He turned to the reporter.

"You should see this place when it's really busy."

Fame followed. There is television footage of him on the Mike Douglas Show kibitzing with Anthony Newley, who penned the song The Candy Man. He'll hand you a dog-eared photocopy from People magazine: Klein, shirtless and hirsute, reclining in a bathtub full of jelly beans.

• • •

As a child, Klein would entertain kids with his knowledge of candy. Ask him anything. Baby Ruth? Curtiss Candy to Nabisco, Nabisco to Nestlé.

"You have to know everything about your field. That's the best advice I can give a young person."

And if you know your facts about candy, you know what came next. On Jan. 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Despite the president's preference for the black ones, 31/2 tons of red, white and blue Jelly Bellies were shipped to Washington, D.C. The manufacturer received authorization to develop a Jelly Belly jar with the presidential seal on it.

It was the year Lean Cuisine and Jell-O Gelatin Pops debuted, but Jelly Belly was king. By then, Klein was out.

"In 1980 I got a call from Herm (Goelitz). He said, 'Dave, I'm coming to town.' Kind of like a Western. High Noon."

Goelitz executives asked Klein to relinquish the trademark. Turns out, he didn't have it precisely. Bob Fosselman had secretly gotten a California trademark on the name, while Garvey Nut had applied for the federal trademark. Klein was promised $20,000 a month for 20 years, which he split with his original Garvey Nut partner.

In 2014, Jelly Belly net sales were estimated at $190 million.

• • •

After his break with Jelly Belly, he started other candy concepts. The first to create sour candy, he says. The progenitor of the yogurt-toppings industry in the mid 1990s, he says. In 1998 there was Sandy Candy, 88 flavors of edible sand art, an invention of his daughter, Roxy. David handled orders and accounting at the Covina, Calif., factory.

After 67 years in Southern California, he and Rebecca relocated in October to Clearwater. And on Nov. 29, he launched Candyman Kitchens at 314 S Belcher Road. Rows of wire racks await merchandise: sugar-free candies and an encyclopedic array of black licorice ("every kind known to man"), nuts and nostalgic candies from the beginning of the 20th century.

Maybe the Candyman has new tricks up his rhinestone sleeves. Still, his name is forever yolked to tiny gourmet jelly beans.

"My signature was on the back of every bag. The minute (Goelitz) took control, they took my Mr. Jelly Belly signature off and put on a computer signature. When I would encounter them in the supermarket, I would have to look away."

He has had to make peace to make sales. Candyman Kitchens is waiting on a shipment of more than 60 flavors of Jelly Belly.

• • •

In Candyman Kitchens, he introduces his assistant Ashley Thirtyacre.

With the dramatic flourish of his idol Willy Wonka, he demonstrates the in-house flavored popcorn popper, kitty-corner from the cotton candy machine.

"Uh oh, it's smoking up. I don't want a fire in here, I'll have to unplug." Ashley vacuums the blackened popcorn kernels from the machine and opens the doors. Klein, unfazed, talks about how Florida's cottage industry law allows entrepreneurs to make candy in their own kitchens.

"We are actively seeking people so we can showcase their products. I've mentored people my whole life. I want to have a candy incubator here."

As if on cue, Holly Jones pulls into the parking lot in her van, nervously cradling a big box of peanut brittle. Did he stage this, like years ago at Fosselman's? He swears he didn't. Jones says the same.

The server at Country Skillet in Clearwater has been making candy for 20 years, two rooms in her house decorated with candy molds. At the restaurant, Klein picked up a business card for Holly Jones Sweet Treats.

Can she make 200 pounds of brittle? Can she make candy apples? She nods. If she could sell enough candy to quit waitressing, "that would be something."

There's a lot of talk. He likes her brittle. She's not sure what has happened, but she's hopeful as she walks past shelves of riotously colored packages, the smoke finally clear, back into the strip mall parking lot.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

Meet the Candyman: Inventor of Jelly Belly sets up shop in Clearwater 12/07/16 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2016 7:41pm]
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