As I glide up the steps of the early 20th century wood-frame house I am greeted by oversized flowers, lollipops and butterflies that decorate the exterior in joyous fashion. A turn of the faded door knob and a creaky push releases an enticing aroma. If happiness had a smell, this would be it. I am greeted inside by Mandy Moore’s “Candy” and a store clerk who directs me to the back of the store. Here in the kitchen is where I find my subject.
A tall slender man with thin, electric hair steps through the doorway with a curious grin. His appearance is disheveled and guarded by an apron caped around his neck and across his chest. He has a quirkiness about him that – when mixed with his appearance – could have rivaled Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp for the role of Willy Wonka.
This man is not Wonka though; he is Pete, Sweet Pete.
Peter Behringer, “Sweet Pete,” is the son of an iconic Jacksonville confectioner family, Peterbrooke Chocolatier. His mom and dad opened the first Peterbrooke store in 1983 and named the store after Pete and his sister Brooke. Growing up in a family with a serious sweet tooth left Pete with only one idea of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: make candy. Peterbrooke has grown to become a staple of the Northeast Florida community, but Pete decided he no longer wanted to be part of that. Instead, after his parents retired, he sold his share of the business and opened Sweet Pete’s in August 2010.
“Why do people love this place?” I ask. “What makes Sweet Pete’s special?”
He excitedly strolls back and forth from his work in the kitchen as he explains the joy of allowing individuals to be part of the candy making process.
“We have candy cane pulls around the holidays, taffy making, truffle classes – you get to be part of that,” he informs me. It was then that I realized I was partaking in what he was selling: the experience.
He brings a pot from the kitchen and tosses the liquid inside onto a marble slab.
“A cream center,” he says, “for anything.”
Not sure which confection would become home to the cream just yet, he allows it to cool at room temperature. As he flips and stirs, the liquid transforms from a clear, sugary substance to a dough-like cream. I watched him like a child in, well, like a child in a candy store. I continue to stare at candy being made. A first-time sighting for me.
“It’s old school candy-making,” he insists. “It’s just sugar.”
Translation – Sweet Pete’s doesn’t add any unnatural ingredients such as high fructose corn syrups. Instead it is all pure, simple sweets made with pure cane sugar, natural ingredients, flavors and colors. Many of the treats are even gluten-free and vegan friendly.
I turn to browse the shop when Pete says, “Try the sea-salt caramel; it’s our best seller.”
I comply and my taste buds send an instantaneous high-five to my brain. The salty-sweet concoction slowly melts on my tongue in an almost euphoric state. This stuff isn’t just smart candy. It’s delicious candy.
I grab a bag and browse the 50-75 jars around the room. Matcha Green Tea Caramels, Milk Chocolate Strawberries, Peppermint Bark Shortbread, Key Lime Taffy, Cocoa Biscotti and many more stare up at my longing eyes. They sit tower-like with streamers, oversized peppermints and other colorful decorations strewn around them. I meticulously fill my bag and exit the store to the sound of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” as a couple of kids enter with wide eyes and even wider smiles.
Sweet Pete’s is located in historic Springfield and offers classes, hosts field trips, and creates bliss seven days a week.