Food & Drink

‘It’s a happy place.’ Chocolate shop celebrates 70 years of sweet tradition in Bradenton

“It’s a happy place.”

That’s how a longtime patron describes stepping into the haven of sweet treats known as Richey’s Chocolates.

At 4710 Manatee Ave. W., open a door back in time to a place where rows of gleaming candies greet the eye, sugared scents overwhelm and the mouth waters with anticipation.

The Bradenton business marks 70 years in operation this year.

It is also the last local chocolate shop in Manatee County, and it’s one of few in Florida that still makes candies on site and by hand.

The recipe for success hasn’t changed much over the years.

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Butter cream chocolate candies are another popular seller at Richey’s Chocolates in Bradenton. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Owners Mardee and Joe Westerman are the third chapter in the beloved chocolate shop’s story, and they appreciate what keeps customers coming back for more all these years later.

“It is totally about tradition and nostalgia,” Mardee Westerman said. “You don’t fix what’s not broken.”

It’s also about sharing something special with family members.

“We have whole generations of customers,” Westerman said.

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Richey’s Chocolates moved from a storefront in a shopping center to its current standalone location on Manatee Avenue. Owner Mardee Westerman says that the wood-paneled, cottage-style building was the perfect fit for an old-time candy store. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

The business is certainly a shared passion for the Westermans; each member of the family of four contributes to the shop’s array of treats.

Mardee handles day-to-day operations, prepares many of the confections and helps customers pick out the right chocolate for any sweet tooth or occasion.

Joe, whose full-time job is as Manatee County Marine Rescue Chief, comes in during his free time to do the heavy cooking of jellies and toffees.

And the Westermans’ sons Jacob and Garrett, who also work full-time jobs with Manatee County, both help with specialty items like caramel corn and pitch in during the busy holiday season.

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Fresh chocolates cooling at Richey’s Chocolates in Bradenton. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

In a world that often demands speed and convenience at the expense of quality, Richey’s stands for taking the time to perform a craft that is not often done by hand anymore.

Customers say they can taste the difference.

Anna Lee Ernst, 66, discovered the shop shortly after moving to Longboat Key 30 years ago.

“It’s quality. It’s consistent. It’s variety. It’s homemade works of art,” Ernst said. “I couldn’t tell you enough adjectives. You could do a blind taste with Richey’s and one of the big chocolate brands, and you would know the difference.”

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Mardee Westerman and husband Joe have owned Richey’s Chocolates since 2004. They have continued to use many of the original chocolate recipes dating back to when the shop opened in 1949. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Ernst, who became a Richey’s fan when the Snyders had the business, says the Westermans are doing a wonderful job of carrying on the tradition.

“They support the community, individuals, schools,” Ernst said.

And how about that marshmallow.

“Take a regular marshmallow and compare it to the marshmallow cream that Joe makes, and it’s like night and day,” Ernst said.

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Milk and dark chocolate nut clusters are a customer favorite at Richey’s Chocolates in Bradenton. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Ernst is a sworn dark chocolate lover who has found a lot to like at Richey’s over the years. Maple cream was her longtime favorite, but recently she’s gravitated to dark chocolate toffee and honeycomb candies.

Richey’s specialty rum cherries are also a favorite among Ernst and her church friends.

Chocolate making is a dying art, Ernst said, and that makes walking into the shop even more special.

“It’s a happy place. You can only walk in and feel happy,” Ernst said.

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Creating toffees and caramels is a labor of love. Both treats require a lengthy cooking process. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Vic and Lynne Menard, self-described Richey’s aficionados, say they have sampled lots of chocolate shops in their travels. None compare to their hometown favorite, where they stop in for seasonal treats all year.

“My wife is a serious Richey’s choc-a-holic,” Vic said. “I don’t even have to point out what she wants — Mardee already knows.”

Westerman is used to customers becoming part of the extended family.

“We have a very repeat clientele,” Westerman said. “Even if they didn’t grow up here, it reminds them of some chocolate shop they went to as a kid. It puts a smile on their face.”

That initial sense of nostalgia gives way to an authentic experience thanks to the old-time methods and vintage equipment still employed at the shop.

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Courtesy of Richey's Chocolates

Many of the candy recipes are the same ones created by original owner Austin “Richey” Richards and then carried faithfully on by the second owners, Dave and Louann Snyder.

The Snyders in turn passed the recipes along when they sold the business to family friends the Westermans in 2004.

Mardee and Joe’s passion for cooking and “home enthusiast-style treats” was driven to new heights by the challenge of carrying on such a well-known community tradition.

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A copper kettle is among the tried and true pieces of vintage equipment used to whip up confections at Richey’s Chocolates in Bradenton. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Bailey Mosley, 23, has enjoyed the chocolate at Richey’s from both sides of the counter; working at the business was one of her first jobs.

“I was a junior in high school when I started working there on holidays,” Mosley said. “They’re awesome people. They quickly became family to us.”

Many years later, an ongoing joke between Mosley and Westerman is still playing out.

“In high school I told her I would be forever single so I could always work on Valentine’s Day,” Mosley said.

Now graduated from college and working as a sales representative, Mosley still makes a pilgrimage from Tampa once a year to help out with the holiday.

“That whole day we just get to catch up,” Mosley said.

“She’s my standing Valentine’s Day girl,” Westerman said. “I joke that you are never allowed to quit the candy shop.”

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Besides handmade chocolate, Richey’s is also known for its sign visible to travelers on Manatee Avenue West that displays humorous, lighthearted and encouraging messages. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Many locals who have never had the pleasure of biting into a caramel nut cluster or a butter cream chocolate have still been touched by the owners’ care for the community.

The shop’s sign is visible to travelers on Manatee Avenue West, and Mardee takes full advantage of the captive audience.

Messages spelled out on the marquee are sometimes funny; sometimes sarcastic; sometimes uplifting and sometimes congratulatory.

“That’s my sass showing,” Mardee said. “Since we moved I think we’re known for the sign as much as the chocolate.”

The west-facing side of the sign currently bears a special message. It reads, “Sweetening Manatee County for 70 years.”

If Richey’s devoted customers have anything to do with it, the chocolate shop will be in town for many, many more.

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