Florida Candy Factory, the Clearwater-based manufacturer of salt water taffy and Angel Mint – century-old products that were first sold in Atlantic City, N.J.-- has new owners. Diego Ramírez and his wife, Vanina Morelli, from Argentina, bought the factory in the spring and have changed nothing. Longtime employees operate machines from the early 20th Century. The machines’ metallic che-chunk che-chunk provides the drumbeat as employees feed the mix in one end and collect wrapped candy at the other.
Ramírez and Morelli are partners in the business with Darío Rodríguez, who sold Angel Mint in his Life & Food Superstore in Ellenton and told them about the business. They were neighbors and friends in Argentina.
Ramírez, 45, and Rodríguez, 51, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the company.
Where are the Angel Mints sold?
Ramírez: Here in Florida and through Amazon all over the country. But here in Florida our best clients are Whole Foods, Kelly’s (a wholesaler) and Wawa.
Are these the mints you sometimes see at the cash register in restaurants?
Rodríguez: That’s right. … A bunch of restaurants... buy (our mints) to give as a courtesy when people check out.
Angel Mints is the better known of your two products. Why do you think that is?
Rodríguez: Mainly because people claim that it has medicinal properties. …
You can’t claim that in advertising, can you?
Rodríguez: Of course, we can’t say it, but actually peppermint does (help)... the digestive system. …
We have very good reviews through Amazon and you hear what people are saying all over the United States, and one (group) of the customers are people that are going through chemotherapy, and due to the chemotherapy they get the metal taste in their mouth. When they have the Angel Mint, within an hour that taste will go away so they can have a proper meal and have a proper taste in (the) flavor of the meals and whatever they drink. That’s what people are saying on the reviews that we are getting.
How did you happen to buy the business?
Ramírez: It was funny, because I came to Florida, to Tampa, to visit Darío and his wife. My wife is a very good friend of his wife, so we came two or three times a year to visit them. So one day, Darío asked me to come here to look for the candies because he couldn’t come. … When I arrived, I said, “Darío, that’s the business we have to buy.” I was thinking about my (investor) visa to live here. … That was in November of last year. Darío was thinking the same thing. … In a month we decided everything.
What motivated you to buy businesses in the United States?
Rodríguez: I had already been here in the United States. I was an exchange student in Little Rock, Ark. in 1988 when I was young. And always it was kind of appealing to have an opportunity to do some business in the States. The situation in Argentina has been kind of complicated, and then with the pandemic it made things even worse. So there’s many people like us, people that believe in hard work and accomplishing things and giving a better opportunity to our kids, so we really felt that this would be a good place. ...
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My daughter was accepted to study at the University of Tampa. We kind of didn’t want her to come by herself so we decided to come on a family adventure, my three kids and my wife. And I (earned) a master’s degree from the University of South Florida on global sustainability.
We kind of felt like there’s opportunity here in the States. We really believe in the American dream, and it’s very interesting because our grandparents came from Europe, mainly from Italy, Germany, and in the case of my wife, Spain and Italy. And at that time in Europe, there were several boats leaving to America that could have been (to) United States, Brazil, Argentina. My grandparents, we always joke, they took the wrong boat, because they wanted to come to the States, and they went to Argentina (laughs). …
So we are correcting that mistake by leaving Argentina and coming to the right place.
What businesses do you have in Argentina?
Rodríguez: I have studied at the University of Helsinki in Finland. When I was a student there, I also became an entrepreneur and created a small company. Due to that… I’ve been exporting for 25 years. I export forestry industry machinery from Sweden and Finland to (southern) Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. I have a small subsidiary there in Rosario, Argentina. That’s where we come from. …
Ramírez: I’m a lawyer and my wife is… a property manager. … I have a partner there. … (Because of) the COVID, all of the work is mostly online. That’s why I decided to come here, too, because I realized I can work online. I have employees there; I connect with them... one or two hours (every morning) and I can do my job because I do some things here in my computer and send it to them. …
This is new, being a businessman is new. All my life (I sell) services, and now I’m selling products. That’s why I need Darío. We (were) friends before we were partners. We have other businesses, too, not this only. We are very good friends and we trust each other, so we are very happy working together.
Could you talk about the machines in the factory?
Rodríguez: when (Diego and I) were talking... about the possibility of buying this factory, we really loved the fact that he could become an owner of such old machinery. The one that makes the Angel Mints is from 1920. ... They’re mechanical machines, they don’t have any software, any computer, so you fix them with a hammer. It’s very appealing. They do have problems, of course, they’re old machines, but it’s very appealing to keep that concept... local company doing craftsmanship with the candies. … Then the taffy machine is from 1940.
Ramírez: We want to keep the tradition because (the company) is known for tradition.
Rodríguez: If (the machines) had been from the… ‘70s or ‘80s, where they had some software from computers, we would never (have) thought to buy it, because that’s more complicated.
For more information, go to angelmint.com.