CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — It was only after he lost his biggest customer that candy maker Scott Rehm realized who cared most about his peppermints.
For years, the Florida Candy Factory made the bulk of its Angel Mints and Old Fashioned Salt Water Taffy for the Walt Disney Co., where the sweets were sold in theme park gift shops and catalogs and stuffed in commemorative mugs.
The 4,000-square-foot factory on Lakeview Road reached sales of $1.2 million a year with Disney and smaller customers, like convenience stores and hospital gift shops.
But in 2000, Disney cut ties with the factory to lower costs and outsource candy manufacturing. The loss forced Rehm to go from 25 employees to seven, from nonstop production to having idle time.
As Rehm grappled with what to do next, he finally read the letters that for years had piled up on his desk.
Customers had written gripping testimonials about how Angel Mints kept their appetite alive as chemotherapy pillaged the rest of their body, how that little burst of peppermint made from a century-old recipe enlivened dormant taste buds, how the mint was a terminally ill friend's last request.
"Eating the Angel Mint has not only stopped this taste from interrupting my sleep for the entire night, but it also brings me a sense of peace because it's so comforting."
Rehm knew then that he had a new focus for his business.
Peppermint is considered one of the world's oldest medicines and has been used as a palliative therapy for nausea, indigestion and other discomforts.
In large batches, Rehm said, the oil is strong enough to suck stains out of wood and burn through jeans.
Lauri Wright, a dietitian and associate professor of nutrition at University of South Florida Health, said peppermint helps patients deal with chemotherapy, which leaves a bizarre, metallic taste on their tongues, sometimes called chemo mouth.
"Eating is such a personal thing, and they're already experiencing such a scare in their life, then to take away one of the most simple pleasures of eating, that's why we see more depression in patients going through the process," Wright said.
Experts are not entirely sure why chemotherapy has this effect, but it's in part because the chemicals destroy cells in the mouth, Wright said.
It leaves patients unable to taste their food, which can discourage them from eating and further weakness and weight loss. Wright said peppermint is potent enough to mask chemo mouth, even if it's only a short while of relief.
Rehm said his mints have a palliative effect that other artificial candies may not because of the simple ingredients, cooking method and temperature, which haven't changed since 1919 when they were first sold on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
The mints are made from pure peppermint oil, cane sugar, non-high fructose corn syrup and a dash of cream of tartar to help bind them together. That's it.
"I'm not trying to say we're curing cancer. We're not advanced medicine here, but from a therapeutic, palliative perspective," there's something to it, he said.
At the factory, sugar cane boils in copper kettles over gas stoves from the 1940s. Machines that stretch the candy and twist it into bite size pieces are more than 100 years old.
Rehm's father, Jerry Rehm, bought the company and recipes in 1984 from a New Jersey entrepreneur and moved the factory to the Clearwater location, in a shopping plaza with a sandwich shop and home decor store.
The family business now produces 30,000 mints each day. They are sold in Whole Foods, Wawa convenience stores, Ace Hardware stores and upward of 3,000 hospital gift shops across the country. Sales total about $450,000 a year, less than half of what they did with Disney, but Rehm said the factory's homey atmosphere is another secret to quality.
Candy making was the first job plant manager Richie Mattiace, 57, landed after high school in Philadelphia and was the only thing he wanted to do when he relocated to Florida with his wife in 1993.
He found the Florida Candy Factory while flipping through the yellow pages looking for work, and for the past 22 years has been part of a tiny staff in a little-known factory that is working to carry on a century's old tradition.
"Candy is the only job I've ever had in my entire life," Mattiace said. "Willy Wonka is my favorite character. I feel like I'm one of the Oompa Loompas. Candy just makes you happy. It makes people happy."
About eight years ago, Rehm said family friend Rep. C.W. Bill Young arranged for him to meet with pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb in Washington to discuss a possible partnership that could expand the mints' reach. The idea was to have Bristol-Myers sponsor the Angel Mint, slap its name on the wrapper, and hand it out to patients for free, like they do pens.
But after four months of discussions, Rehm said the company passed on the deal for liability reasons.
A few years later, Rehm approached Moffitt Cancer Center with a similar pitch, but the deal would have required product testing costing upwards of $50,000, Rehm said.
"We decided then it just had to be grass roots," he said.
Rehm said the first step in his company's self discovery was losing a million-dollar client. The next is figuring out how to reach more patients in hospitals and cancer rooms.
"We'll never be a Nestle or a Hershey," he said, " but I really think there's a purpose to our product."