Dolle's, unofficial candy of Biden White House, hopes for sweet season in new location
Standing on the sidewalk outside of his Rehoboth Avenue candy shop in Rehoboth Beach, Tom Ibach can see the former site where his family ran one of Delaware's best-known businesses since 1927.
Dolle's Candyland, for the first summer season in 94 years, is not operating at its prime spot on the boardwalk.
A few months ago, after his cousin increased the rent, Ibach declined to renew the longtime lease on the building that faces the ocean. He moved the business in February to his confectionary shop, Ibach's Candy By the Sea.
Blue Dolle's signs are now painted on the windows of the new location, sandwiched between Louie's Pizza and Thrasher's Fries.
A new backlit sign is coming soon to replace the Ibach name that's been above the store's blue awning since its 1991 opening. Bins and glass cases are well-stocked with handmade and hand-coated chocolates, caramel corn, brittles, saltwater taffy and mint sticks.
But, while the air-conditioned store is only 50 feet away from the old one, for some, it seems like a mile.
What about the sign?
Part of the confusion, Ibach knows, is that the iconic, red-orange Dolle's Salt Water Taffy sign, a towering Delaware landmark and the backdrop for countless vacation photos, postcards and videos, remains in place at the northwest corner where Rehoboth Avenue hugs the boardwalk.
The cultural icon, which for generations of Delaware visitors has symbolized sunny summers filled with warm sand, rolling surf, cackling seagulls and chewy salt water taffy, will stay perched on the roof there at least through November.
When it's removed from Rehoboth's skyline sometime this fall, it will mark a sad end to a sweet chapter of the state's history.
"Is it open? I need my salt water taffy," a woman asks a reporter early one morning last week as she hesitates in front of Ibach's store at 9 Rehoboth Ave., and then looks toward the former Dolle's location just two doors down.
Ibach always made sure Dolle's – and the Ibach candy store – opened by 9 a.m.
This year, because of a struggle to hire employees, he has shortened the hours and isn't unlocking the store doors until 11 a.m.
The woman, who doesn't give her name, seems relieved to hear the store will open soon and again glances down at the old location.
Doors are locked, the windows are shuttered and placards touting caramel popcorn and fudge are gone. Only ghostly images remain on the building's wood and brick.
"The sign, I'm going to miss," the woman says, referring to the 35-foot-long Dolle's sign in its distinctive cursive that can be seen from the beach and the boardwalk. "I'm an old-fashioned gal."
"But it's really about the candy. I'll be back here to get it. I'm a traditionalist. I need my saltwater taffy," she says and then walks away to get a cup of coffee until the store opens.
These are words that Ibach wants to hear.
"It's going to be a lot different, obviously," says Ibach, who was raised in Wilmington but spent childhood summers in Rehoboth, helping his grandparents at their business that he now runs. "We're not at the corner. It's going to be a big change. We just have to adapt."
Customers rally around Dolle's
Customers have expressed their support for Ibach on the Dolles Candyland-Ibachs Candy by the Sea Facebook page.
"Always a part of our date night and an important part of my wedding day," wrote DeAnna Farrell, who also posted a photo of her and husband kissing in front of the Dolle's sign. "Thanks for being awesome. We will see you at your new location!"
"We will continue to support you no matter where you are," wrote Stephanie Futcher Coulbourne.
The boardwalk building has been purchased by Grotto Pizza, which will reconfigure the space. The Delaware pizza chain was founded in Rehoboth Beach in 1960 and operates other nearby pizzerias.
While one chapter has closed after nearly a century, Ibach knows one thing is certain: Dolle's is a survivor.
The store has survived nor'easters, snowstorms, hurricanes, at least one fire, family legal squabbles and the coronavirus pandemic.
The Dolle's sign is well-known for its widespread recognizability and visibility, but it's not as big as some other famous signs.
The letters spelling out Dolle's are 19 feet high, while the ones making up the world-famous Hollywood sign in California are more than double at 45 feet tall.
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Ibach says he can't move the famous boardwalk sign onto the roof of his smaller Rehoboth Avenue candy store because it's too large and heavy.
He says the sign might be relocated to a new production facility he is building off state Route 1 near Steamboat Landing or he will possibly donate it to a museum.
It will be the end of an era for sure, but the Dolle's iconic sign in Rehoboth has been taken down before.
The first time was in March 1962 when the Dolle's building was heavily damaged by a storm that devastated the boardwalk. The D in the sign was knocked down by high winds and all but one piece of candy equipment was blown into the sea by the storm.
But the business bounced back – one of the taffy machines that was buried in the sand is operating today – and opened that July.
In 2002, a bad January rainstorm ripped away the last three letters of the Dolle's name. Soon after, the original, crumbling wooden sign was replaced with a replica made of more durable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and aluminum, which could better withstand inclement weather.
Pieces of the sign also have tumbled onto the boardwalk through the years as the ocean's salty air has chewed away at its metal supports, much like a tourist gnawing away on taffy.
A fire in 2003 that started in a popcorn machine caused Dolle's storefront to shut down temporarily for some minor damage. It reopened a day later.
And last summer, when COVID-19 was ravaging the world, Ibach fought closure and stayed open by obtaining a Delaware Small Business Administration loan to help pay his rent. Even though business was down 40% and he had only a quarter of the staff he usually had, Ibach kept going on, as is the Dolle's tradition.
Dolle's rich history – and most famous customer
Dolle's in Rehoboth was started in 1926 at the site of an old Methodist campground by co-founders Thomas Pachides, a native of Greece, and Baltimore resident Rudolph Dolle, whose family has run a candy store in Ocean City, Maryland, since 1910.
The partners moved to Rehoboth Avenue and the Boardwalk in 1927 after purchasing an old YMCA building.
Pachides bought out Dolle's stake in the Delaware store in 1960 but kept the name. The Ocean City stores are still run by members of the Dolle family, but the businesses are completely separate from the Delaware store.
After Pachides' death in 1984 at age 93, his wife, Theo, took over operations until her own death at age 90 in 1998.
Ibach, who has been running the operation since 1991, follows the family's time-honored candy traditions and recipes.
He's at work every day by about 6 a.m. and begins the candy-making process in huge copper kettles. Everything is handmade – the popcorn; the buttery caramel that coats the popcorn; sweet fudge; and, of course, the chewy saltwater taffy, which is produced two or three days a week.
The only thing that has changed is the flavors. When Ibach was a child, there were only 10 flavors. Now, Dolle's offers 24 flavors, including cotton candy, root beer and pineapple.
Peanut butter is the most popular flavor of saltwater taffy, and Ibach has recently found out it apparently has a famous fan – President Joe Biden.
Biden is said to be such a Dolle's admirer that, according to the Washington Post, he keeps a bowl of saltwater taffy in the outer Oval Office in the White House.
The president, who has a beach house in Rehoboth's North Shores neighborhood, is no doubt familiar with Dolle's. The White House did not immediately return a message asking about the candy.
"It's pretty cool," Ibach says about the apparent White House connection, though he adds he hasn't seen Biden in the store. But he says during Easter weekend, he believes some of Biden's staff came into the store and purchased at least two dozen boxes of candy.
Ibach says seeing Delaware politicians, even the president, isn't unusual in Rehoboth or at Dolle's. He says Sen. Chris Coons likes the chocolate-covered Oreos and Sen. Tom Carper comes in for a candy fix. Back in the day, Ibach remembers chats with the late Sen. Bill Roth as he sat on a bench near the Rehoboth store.
This summer, Ibach acknowledges, could be the most difficult of his longtime candy career and only a small part is moving into the new location.
Staffing shortages affecting not just Rehoboth but the entire nation have been one of the greatest challenges.
"I don't have any help. No one wants to work. It's a terrible situation. It's going to be very, very difficult with a skeleton staff," Ibach says. His son Thomas Jr., who has another job, comes in to help his father make candy.
Still, Ibach expects Dolle's to pull through, just as it's done the previous 94 years.
"I'm happy that people are out and moving again," he says. "And the biggest thing I hear is that people say, 'It doesn't matter where you are, we'll follow you.'"