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Candy still dandy at beach

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Kris Hackney operates her sugary beach shop with some help from Willy Wonka, Mary Jane and a Sugar Daddy.

Staying sweet is essential for Hackney. She owns the Candy Kitchen, at 13711 Gulf Blvd., one of Pinellas County's original _ and remaining _ outposts for the unusual, the revered, and the freshest confections available. Opened in 1950 by Curt and Helen Johnson, the store remains close to its original form, right down to the daily production of Mrs. Johnson's original ice cream recipes.

For Hackney, 46, customer service is paramount. She listens to what her clientele craves and usually will stock what they request.

Despite its name, the Candy Kitchen also offers a dozen flavors of ice cream _ a perennial favorite of beachgoers _ that usually vary according to season or demand.

"I'm not by trade an ice cream maker," Hackney said. "We can't make 50 gallons of ice cream. So every day, our ice cream is fresh, and the flavors are still strong.

"Everyone has a nice attitude about it. They appreciate the fact that they're getting something freshly made, loaded with nuts or fruit."

Weather plays a big role in both what people will consume and what the Candy Kitchen will prepare.

"We sell more chocolate in winter than in summer," Hackney said. "I don't think people like to handle it" because of the heat.

"Instead, they buy lots of gummies."

She makes cotton candy only in winter and spring. And she waits until winter visitors arrive before cranking out rum raisin, maple walnut and butter pecan ice cream, which in winter she "has to carry."

"I can't get away from it," she said.

Winter tourists also sometimes request penuche, also known as Virginia or Kentucky brown sugar fudge, a type of candy Hackney had never heard of until people began asking for it.

"I went through lots of old cookbooks to find the recipe," she said.

Growing up in Riverside, N.J., Hackney and her siblings worked in their parents' sandwich and soda shop.

"(We) were raised in the local hangout," she said. "I personally feel there's not enough of this (type of store). Malls are fine for 13- and 14-year-olds. But there's no place for little kids to go. When I saw this shop, it really appealed to me."

Hackney has owned the Candy Kitchen for two years _ with help from her 19-year-old son, Josh _ and is adamant about keeping its traditions intact. At 46 years old, the shop still is tiny, although it's shadowed by the expanding condominiums across Gulf Boulevard. Inside, hundreds of types of candy sit in glass jars or cardboard boxes.

Hackney won't stock Snickers, Reese's or Hershey bars, instead giving a home to hard-to-find candies that have been overshadowed by the major manufacturers' chocolate wars. Among them are Slo-Pokes, Chick-o-sticks, Boston Baked Beans, Squirrel Nut-Zippers and Pixy Stix.

The sometimes controversial 1970s children's favorite, Pop Rocks, sells well in its six flavors, as do Bottle Caps, jawbreakers and those little colored candy buttons that come on a plain strip of paper.

A century ago, American candymakers developed endless concoctions for candy, and, by the 1920s, as many as 40,000 different candy bars were on the scene, according to the National Confectioners Association in McLean, Va.

Hackney realizes that it is that kind of variety that spices up her store.

"It's a neat little business," she said, nodding toward the jars that hold more than a dozen kinds of licorice.

Despite the sign above the front counter that reads "I won't budge without my fudge," Hackney says she doesn't really care for the chewy concoction.

"I come from a family of good bakers," she said. "I love to bake at home. If I'm going to get my calories, that's where they'll come from."