Candy Kitchen delighted customers since 1937. Now in its fourth generation, the Leiner family’s ‘Wonderful World of Candy’ is more iconic than ever.
For generations, families vacationing in Ocean City have visited their favorite local shops and attractions to recreate memories from their childhoods. Parents have long passed down their time-honored traditions of a sight-filled stroll down the Boardwalk, the exhilarating experience of an amusement ride and dining at the establishments their parents always brought them to as children. Positioned near the very top of this vacation checklist is a fun-filled visit to Candy Kitchen — the fourth-generation, family-owned-and-operated, wonderful world of candy that has been an integral part of the resort’s landscape for over 80 years.
Founded in 1937 by their uncle, Sam Taustin, Bruce Leiner and Jay Taustin now own the 20 Candy Kitchen retail stores stretching the beaches from Rehoboth to Virginia Beach — all of which are operated by the Leiner family: Bruce; his wife, Cindy; their children, Josh and Jesse; and daughter-in-law Jill.
Candy Kitchen produces all of its deliciously famous salt water taffy, fudge and chocolates at its original 53rd Street candy factory and production complex in Ocean City and has done so since about 1940. “People often think we’re either a chain or a franchise because there are so many retail locations,” said Jill Leiner, Candy Kitchen’s chief financial officer. “I don’t think people know that we are locally owned and operated and that almost all of our candy is made at our factory on 53rd Street. It’s an impressive feat, one which we’re quite proud of.
“To accomplish such a tall order, production at the Candy Kitchen factory is driven by consumer demand — its salt water taffy, fudge and chocolates are manufactured solely based upon need. This principle ensures the freshest products are always available to its discerning and loyal customers.
“Fudge has the shortest natural shelf life, so we make it almost every day in season,” Bruce explained. “We might make a 200-pound batch every week in the winter, whereas we’re making 600-pound batches multiple times a week of the same fudge flavor in summer. We scale our production to our needs.”
Their recipe for success includes using the freshest, high-quality ingredients, locally sourced whenever possible, such as cream and butter from Lewes Dairy. “We purchase the best products available and we never use preservatives,” Bruce said. “All of our ingredients, like pure cane sugar, nuts, raisins, coconut and inclusions like real Oreo cookies and M&M’s are the very best you can buy. Quality is crucial to us and our customers.”
Buying the best ingredients is only the start. The real magic happens in the factory, where Josh Leiner, head candy maker, and their longstanding, talented team of candy makers and chocolatiers physically make, shape, cut, drizzle and sprinkle the delectable selections available for purchase in Candy Kitchen stores every day.
“The key ingredient is hand labor,” Bruce said. “Even with today’s technology, most of our candies are still handmade, the old-fashioned way, and our employees take tremendous pride in their work. Every single nut cluster is still dipped by hand — so is every bark and every gourmet pretzel. We make the caramel for our famous King Tut in small batches — only 12 slabs at a time. Tomorrow it will be hand-coated on both sides with milk chocolate.” It’s their delicious milk and dark chocolates that reside at the heart of Candy Kitchen’s sweetness and success. “The key to good chocolate is that it should have an excellent flavor and be smooth and creamy, like velvet,” Bruce said.
The Candy Kitchen experience extends far beyond the mouthwatering options displayed in its candy showcases thanks to Cindy and Jesse, whose merchandising rivals the grandest toy stores imaginable. Years ago, Cindy skillfully transformed both the product line and the overall look of Candy Kitchen to include the trendiest toys and products on the market; her updated store design welcomes every customer to the ‘Wonderful World of Candy!’ “I think my wife did that brilliantly,” Bruce said. “She has a great eye for fashion, and that’s why she can see a lot of things most others can’t. Cindy is incredibly good at spotting new trends and routinely brings in the latest novelties, toys and stuffed animals.” Today, her daughter Jesse and operations manager Erin Michael are instrumental in the buying and planning, both of whom have become essential to the current success of the entire business.
In all, more than 300 people work for Candy Kitchen during the peak summer months to operate all facets of the business smoothly; nearly one-third of those are year-round employees. Even more impressive is the dedication and loyalty of their staff, many of whom have been with the company for more than 20, 30, even 40 years.
The truth is, “We are really a large, extended family here at Candy Kitchen,” Bruce said. “Though Cindy and I run the business and know it will be in good hands in the future, underlying our success is the extraordinary team we have. We are not a company that dwells on titles. Everyone wears multiple hats, sometimes too many, and our key leaders work remarkably well together. Jill and Erin currently control every operating facet of Candy Kitchen. Our department heads and year-round staff work diligently to keep things flowing smoothly in preparation for the busy summer season.
“Our regional supervisors, Susie Channell, Jim Snyder and Chris Ciletti, are just incredible,” Bruce continued, “as are our managers and their staff. Cindy and I are forever grateful to our amazing team and each one’s contributions. Our family could not do this alone!”
Candy Kitchen holds a lofty place in the rich history of Ocean City. Sam Taustin first opened the doors to Candy Kitchen in 1937, 18 years before McDonald’s. An entrepreneurial legend of his time, Sam owned several businesses, including a collection of restaurants. The youngest of nine siblings, Sam was deeply devoted to his family and opened the first several Candy Kitchen locations for each of them to play an integral part in the business operation. “Each one ran a phase of the business,” Bruce said. “My dad’s mom ran the 6th Street Candy Kitchen.
Aunt Sally ran 9th Street. Jay’s mom ran 28th Street, Aunt Thelma ran the mailroom, which was almost nonexistent back then, but Sam offered mail-order candy. Aunt Helen ran the office, and it continued right down the line.
For many years, Candy Kitchen remained a small yet successful seasonal operation. The company’s dynamic changed forever, however, when Bruce’s father, Richard Leiner, became Sam’s operating partner in the mid-1960s. Under his direction, the number of Candy Kitchen locations swelled from 5 to 25 in just a few years, growing its regional footprint and loyal customer base in the process. Richard, a financial wizard, was also the operating partner for legendary Ocean City restaurants The Bonfire and The Embers. “My dad is a great numbers guy,” Bruce said. “He can look at a financial statement and tell you what’s going right and wrong in a matter of minutes. Even today, at 92, we send him our numbers, and he tells us where our costs are off by two percent.”
The family’s imprint on the entrepreneurial fabric of Ocean City extends beyond Candy Kitchen, as Bruce’s brother, Mark Leiner, now runs The Bonfire Restaurant. Jay and Cole Taustin operate The Embers Restaurant, in addition to their newer establishments Blu CrabHouse and Mad Fish Bar & Grill.
In the old days, Bruce and Jay worked side-by-side at Candy Kitchen every day before going to their respective night jobs. “Back then, Ocean City was very different,” Bruce said. “We worked here at Candy Kitchen by day. At night Jay went to The Embers and I went to The Bonfire. I wore a jacket and tie six nights a week, seating people, bussing tables and cooking when I needed to.”
Today, the fourth generation of Leiners are groomed and taking over key components of daily operations. Jill Leiner, Bruce and Cindy’s daughter-in-law, started working for the family business 17 years ago as a retail sales clerk and since moved through the ranks to chief financial officer.
“I have had the opportunity to learn all aspects of the business, working alongside Bruce on the financial side and Cindy on the creative side, throughout my tenure here,” said Jill. “I love my job and enjoy being part of the collective effort of bringing innovative ideas to fruition.”
Josh Leiner, who’s always had a passion for cooking, has taken the reins as the company’s head candy maker. “Being in Ocean City makes a lot of business owners’ lives very hectic,” said Josh, who first started working in the family business at age 13. “I watched my parents work 60, 70, 80 hours a week; nights; weekends; holidays; all year-long — and it must have rubbed off on me somewhere along the way. I pride myself in working as hard as I can, day in and day out. I certainly learned that growing up as a kid in a candy store was not all fun and games.
“I learned the importance of honesty from my mom and how to always expect the best from myself and others,” Josh continued. “And the one thing that stands out to me most about my dad is how he can deal with a problem calmly and patiently. He has the ability to always see the positive in a tough situation and is able to weigh both sides, which has always impressed me; I try my best to emulate that on a daily basis.”
According to Bruce, Josh relishes the opportunity to put his talents to work in such a prominent role. One of the many ways he’s making his mark is through the creation of an array of new products, some of which are available in stores now, like peanut-butter-and-jelly fudge. Research and development of new products continue, both privately and publicly, for new salt water taffy flavors, such as root beer, jalapeño, cappuccino, lemonade, pineapple and several others.
“All of our old-fashioned, traditional recipes are still in place,” said Bruce, “but we’re also modernizing some of our products, as well. A decade ago there wasn’t a chocolate M&M fudge, but it’s here today, and it’s very popular. We’re always analyzing our product line and looking for ways to evolve, to offer our customers the best experience possible. For our candy production, it’s Josh’s baby now, and we are very proud of him.”
His fourth-generation counterpart, sister Jesse Overholt, has worked at Candy Kitchen for as long as she can remember, straightening toys and filling the toy displays at a young age, under the caring direction of her mother.
“It became something I did every time I went to the office after school,” Jesse said. “It was fun, and it made me feel important to help my parents keep their store looking neat and full.”
She also remembers how much fun it was to grow up at Candy Kitchen.
“One of my favorite memories was going into the factory with my dad and riding the conveyor belt that brings boxes from the second floor down to the main level” she said. “He would stop it [the belt], start it and reverse it, and my friends and I would just laugh and laugh. It was like going on an amusement ride. It was so much fun!”
Today, the VP of merchandising is also the full-time merchandiser for Ocean City. She said nothing is more fulfilling than working with her mom and Erin in determining which toys and novelties will be available to their customers — especially their youngest ones.
“I love walking into a store and hearing what customers say about Candy Kitchen,” Jesse said. “It’s impossible not to smile at the sheer happiness and excitement on a kid’s face when they find the exact toy or candy that they want. Their faces light up and they are just amazed. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you are responsible for creating that reaction — the Candy Kitchen experience.”
Jesse’s talents are vibrantly on display at Candy Kitchen’s stores, including their newest location at 123rd Street. This ultra-modern prototype store in North Ocean City has set the next course in motion for Candy Kitchen’s evolving look and shopping experience, which will include the renovation of its Rehoboth Avenue location and a brand-new retail store, soon to be built on Route 50 in West Ocean City.
“Cindy and our entire team are always trying to make the Candy Kitchen experience fresh and new,” Bruce said. “We want our customers to enjoy a unique experience, where product quality and consistency always reign supreme. Whether you’re 3 or 93, we want everyone to have that ‘kid in a candy store’ experience and create new memories with their loved ones year after year at Candy Kitchen, The Sweetest Place at the Beach!”