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Candy cane man is an artist in sugar

MANATEE -- Watching Peter Samuel Vrinios pull and knead a 40-pound chunk of raw candy into candy canes is like watching a glass blower or sculptor at work.

“We still do it without machines, like the way it was done in 1898,” said Vrinios, a resident of Greyhawk Landing on State Road 64. “The trick is to make every piece come out the same diameter. That’s the art of it.”

The candy maker also makes ribbon candy and peanut brittle.

Vrinios, who is Greek, learned the art of candy making from his father, Samuel Peter Vrinios, who learned it from his father, Peter Samuel Vrinios.

Peter Samuel, the grandfather, started Vrinios Confectionery in Champaign, Ill., in 1898.

Although the original business is now closed, Vrinios, 59, took the original marble table and copper kettles with him from Illinois. When he moved to Florida with his family two years ago, he decided to reopen 30 days out of the year.

“I wanted to make candy just for 30 days before Christmas,” Vrinios said.

He hasn’t yet found a permanent home for his month of candy adventure.

“We are bouncing around, looking for a bakery, candy shop or someplace that wants us permanently, but only one month out of the year,” Vrinios said.

Last year, he made candy before thousands of fans who came to see him at Good Earth Grocery on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch.

But Good Earth Grocery closed on April 30 when new owners bought the brand.

This year, Vrinios started out at Smoothie King on Manatee Avenue West.

But he’s moving again.

Beginning Tuesday, he can be found at Gillian’s Deli & Specialty Ice Cream, 7 S. Boulevard of the Presidents, on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota.

“We will be set up at Gillian’s from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, where kids and adults can actually finish the candy canes they buy,” Vrinios said.

The candy canes and peanut brittle will still be on sale all this coming week at the Smoothie King next to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School on Manatee Avenue West, Vrinios said.

On Sunday, during Vrinios’ last day at Smoothie King, Sydney Van Alstyne, 15, and Jenny Steele, 17, both from Manatee High School, celebrated the Canes’ recent football state championship with some ‘Cane munching.

“I love candy canes,” Van Alystyne said, putting the ‘hook’ in her still warm candy cane.

“I like the mint,” Steele said.

“If you come to Gillian’s you can watch the process exactly like it was in 1889,” Vrinios said. “We are the only ones making it with no machines, stretching it by hand.”

For $5, one can get a thick and tall -- half-inch in diameter and 7 inches tall -- candy cane of many different flavors.

There is the traditional red and white peppermint.

But sports fans seem to like the “Gator cane,” which is University of Florida orange and blue with an orange flavor.

There is also a “Golden Bull” cane, which is University of South Florida green and gold and has a sassafras taste.

Vrinios’ “Create a Cane” business also makes cinnamon, chocolate mint, root beer, cherry and other flavored canes.

He also does special orders.

“We can make any color, size or flavor cane,” Vrinios said.

The candy cane starts with sugar, water, cornstarch, baking soda and other “secret” ingredients boiled to about 400 degrees in copper kettles.

Vrinios’ son, Sam, a Lakewood Ranch High student, is the fourth generation to make candy.

“As the candy cools, we ball it up and then it becomes manageable to work with,” Vrinios said. “It’s like hot clay. We take one piece and stretch it on a hook. The cooling process turns it white. We put coloring in another piece or two and then put them all back together, squeeze and meld them into one. Then we roll it just right and there you have a candy cane that hardens in minutes.”

For more information, or to suggest a permanent home for the candy cane man, call Vrinios at 941-524-1009.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.