Lifesaver, candyman Joe Westerman
CINDY LANE | SUN
Joe Westerman pours toffee from a copper kettle
onto to an iron table, which keeps it warm as it’s cut.
BRADENTON – Sometime between zero dark thirty in the morning and the time when they raise the flags at the lifeguard stations on Anna Maria Island, Manatee County Marine Rescue Division Capt. Joe Westerman suits up and gets to work.
The sunglasses and board shorts come later.
First, it’s an apron and a chef’s hat.
Westerman may be a lifesaver in his day job, but on his own time, he’s a candyman.
Thermometers are for weathermen, according to Westerman, who stands over a hot copper kettle, slaving over a batch of toffee at Richey’s Chocolates, 4710 Manatee Ave. W. You can tell when the toffee is hot enough when it makes bubbly “windows” on the sides of the kettle; any hotter and it scorches, not hot enough and it’s not toffee.
Caramels are a little trickier – if the temperature’s not quite right, they become airborne and pop clean out of the kettle.
His wife, Mardee Westerman, enters the room wielding a well-worn machete. She runs Richey’s.
It’s all about timing, she says. Part of the timing is to know how long it will really be when Joe says “five minutes and it’s done.”
It’s done now, and the ballet begins.
They tag team the toffee; Joe pulls a small piece away from the giant circle he’s poured from the kettle onto an iron table, and Mardee whisks in, machetes it away from the mother lode and lays it on a piece of waxed paper the length of a kitchen countertop.
If the phone rings, too bad. It’s toffee time.
They’re so used to it they may not even notice, but the candy shop smells magical.
The magic started in 1949, in a little shop near Cortez Road and U.S. Highway 41. The most recent owners of Richey’s passed the original owner’s recipes to the Westermans eight years ago when they took over the business.
When they hear someone say, “That tastes just like it did when I was a kid!” and a look of nostalgia comes over their face, it makes the crazy hours worthwhile.
The candy is all handmade, not like some shops that make one or two items out front, but import everything else from manufacturers that use machines with – horrors! - thermometers.
The only machinery used in the shop is the chocolate melter, Westerman says proudly. It’s a dying art that the couple is passing down to their son, Jacob.
At Christmastime, they also hire elves to help make chocolate reindeer, angels, snowmen, stockings, candy cane ribbons, chocolate Christmas trees, solid chocolate Santas, crèmes, nut logs, jellies, caramel corn, chocolate Christmas cards and more.
But now the sun’s up, and before Westerman heads out to the beach on his day job, there’s peanut brittle to make.