Salt-water taffy draws shoppers to Candyland


Ocean City -- It's as much a part of the Boardwalk as the worn brown planks: The sweet smell of fresh taffy blends with the buttery aroma of popcorn and the heavy perfume of chocolate as you round the corner at Wicomico Street.

Dolle's Candyland has been on the corner since 1910, when the present owner's father came to Ocean City, bringing a small merry-go-round he'd built in Baltimore to put on the corner of Wicomico and the Boardwalk.

"My dad came here to live in 1910. . . . there was a man making saltwater taffy right on this corner," says Rudolph Dolle, who inherited the business from his father. "We bought the business from him."

Then in 1925 the carousel burned down, and the Dolles, who had "married into the carousel business" anyhow, according to Mr. Dolle, were a one-business family.

That business, then as now, is candy: mints, chocolates, caramel corn. But the Dolles' mainstay is taffy, that sweet souvenir of a trip to the shore that is said to have been the product of a mistake by an Atlantic City, N.J., candy maker a century ago.

Legend has it that the candy man left his taffy out overnight and the salt mist made it sticky. He was going to throw it out when a little girl said, "No, I'll eat it" -- and the rest is individually wrapped history, Mr. Dolle says.

"Basically, our formula has not changed very much over the years," Mr. Dolle says on a recent morning when the candy-making is in full swing.

The taffy begins with corn syrup, heated and piped into the candy stand on the Boardwalk from a storage tank out back. It's mixed with sugar, the second principal ingredient in taffy. Then evaporated milk, butter and salt are added and the mixture is cooked, 75 pounds at a time, in a copper kettle nearly two feet across.

Then the candy is put on a big metal table cooled by water piped under it, and shaped into big squares before being put on the pulling machine that runs for four minutes per batch. As the arms of the machine swing back and forth, the taffy looks like an elastic skein of wool. Pulling it adds air and lightens the texture, Mr. Dolle says -- much like beating egg whites makes them meringue. The pulled taffy is shaped into a log and put on another machine that rolls it and removes any air pockets. From there, it feeds through four pairs of spools that turn it into a long, thin tube a little thinner than a garden hose.

The tube snakes across a short table and into the wrapping machine that wraps each piece in two pieces of paper (the outside one bears the Dolle trademark) and spits the finished candy into a bucket at the back of the machine. Each bucket is inspected for miswraps and other flaws before the candy is boxed and sold.

"We're real particular about how the candy is wrapped," Mr. Dolle says over the staccato sound of wrapped taffy firing into the bucket. His business does tens of thousands of pounds of taffy each season, he says, with most of it being sold on the Boardwalk. A second store on 94th Street and Coastal Highway also sells taffy, and there is some mail-order business (although he doesn't solicit it, he will honor any mail-order requests).

"Saltwater taffy is an item that people come to the shore for," Mr. Dolle says proudly. "It's part of Ocean City."

The store makes taffy -- 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of it -- three times a week, Mr. Dolle says, and it sells promptly. It must -- there are no preservatives and taffy has about a four-week shelf life.

The Dolles sell taffy in a wide variety of flavors, and will also make up special orders, Mr. Dolle says. Most popular? Peanut butter -- out of 1,200 pounds of candy being made on this day, 200 will be peanut butter. The remaining half-ton will be divided among other flavors: chocolate, molasses, strawberry, lemon, lime, licorice, peppermint, spearmint, banana, orange, vanilla, root beer, cinnamon, grape and assorted mixes of flavors.

The Boardwalk store, always busy with popcorn, chocolate and other candy sales, is a hive of activity on candy-making days. One worker is monitoring the pulling machine; Mr. Dolle's father-in-law is making sure the pulled taffy feeds evenly into the spooling and wrapping machines. A third employee is checking each bucket and Mr. Dolle's son, Andrew, 12, is also present, watching and helping.

Taffy is a labor-intensive business, despite all the machinery. Mr. Dolle's eight-worker staff swells to 52 in the summer.

And the Dolles' other candies are equally labor-intensive. Chocolate-dipped strawberries and pretzels are popular items and each one is dipped by hand.

"We pride ourselves on being small," Mr. Dolle says. "We can control our quality. It's a family business, and our philosophy is, what we do, we want to be right."

That concern with quality shows in the concentration employee Debbi Lordi brings to her dipping job on this day. She carefully immerses each pretzel in chocolate, wipes off any drips with a knife and sets each pretzel on a tray. When the pretzels are finished, she begins making nonpareils, the chocolate treat beloved by moviegoers and ladies' bridge clubs. Each nonpareil is carefully swirled by Ms. Lordi, who wields the funnel holding the chocolate with ease. Pause, twirl, on to the next one and she's finished a tray of nonpareils in a matter of minutes.

"That's real chocolate," Mr. Dolle says. "I think it's the closest thing you can get to European chocolate."

Does he still like candy after all these years of making it? His eyes twinkle as he pats his stomach, covered by a baker's apron.

"Do I ever!" he says with a chuckle. "My whole family has a sweet tooth!"

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