SMALL TOWNS: Young couple’s sweet Door County story

Updated: Mar. 24, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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With Action 2 News anchor Jeff Alexander still on the mend from ankle surgery, we’re looking back at some of our Small Towns stories from its first year. Tonight’s encore report originally aired on March 24, 2022.

DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Iconic candy recipes--more than 100 years old--will continue to be enjoyed in Door County thanks to a young couple who recently took a leap of faith.

Last month, they took ownership of the popular Uncle Tom’s Candy Store in Ellison Bay.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to the northern tip of Door County where a sweet legacy is in good hands.

Just a few months ago, Ryan Mueller and Rebecca Whipple had no clue they’d be waiting for that magical temperature inside a big, old kettle to carry on a legacy that began nearly 50 years ago.

Today, it’s a batch of peanut brittle, a process that is fast, and leaves little room for error.

“Five-to-seven minutes it will be ready for us to plate, weigh, package and then literally during our busy time of the year, it’ll be out there for customers to purchase within 30 minutes,” explains Ryan.

In early February, Ryan and Rebecca purchased the iconic Uncle Tom’s Candy, founded by Tom Collis in 1973 inside the old Newport School House.

“He spent most of the 60′s renovating this area, then ran his candy store out of here until his death in the early 90′s, then Marge, one of his neighbors took over the business and eventually transitioned that to Heather Laughlin who had owned the business while raising a family for the last 25 years and then fast forward to right now when Rebecca and I purchased it just over a month ago,” says Ryan.

An admittedly unexpected venture for Ryan, who grew up and played college basketball in Milwaukee, before entering the banking business, and Rebecca, who grew up in Madison, starred in track at UW-Eau Claire and just earned her master’s degree in social work.

“So we have advanced degrees that is going into owning a candy store now,” says Rebecca, before breaking out in laughter.

When Ryan met Rebecca three years ago, while she was waitressing during the summer in Sister Bay, they discovered an instant Door County connection.

An engagement soon followed.

“Absolutely love Door County, I’ve been coming up here from birth, my family’s lived on North Bay for 70-80 years and just always loved coming up here in the summers, even in the winters and we were looking for a change of place, both Rebecca and myself and we just got lucky,” says Ryan.

“I don’t think either of us expected to be living up here so soon, so early in our lives, but it was really the right place, the right timing, it’s really turned into being the perfect opportunity for us,” adds Rebecca.

Uncle Tom’s primary products are a variety of chocolate bark, brittles and pancake mixes.

The recipes-are secret-and non-negotiable.

“One thing that isn’t ever going to change here are the recipes, we are going to continue using the same recipes that Uncle Tom received from his parents over 100 years ago,” says Ryan.

One of the masters of those recipes is Carol Kostka, a longtime employee who’s staying on to help Ryan and Rebecca master candy-making.

“Where else can you get homemade, no box, all made with two little hands, in old, old pots that Uncle Tom had, it’s just a fantastic place to be,” says Kostka.

And the new ownership is fantastic news to area businesses

“I think that’s amazing that they’re going to continue with the same recipes, I really do, there has been a lot of change in the county, especially over the last few years, so it’s nice to know that there’s some things that will stay the same,” says Missy LeBelle, High Point Inn General Manager.

Within weeks of taking over Uncle Tom’s, community support simply overwhelmed the young couple.

“We didn’t quite expect the traffic and the support that we’ve received so far, so that’s been awesome,” says Ryan.

Before a wedding later this year, Ryan and Rebecca are gearing up for their first busy summer season, confident they have all the ingredients to make Uncle Tom’s shine.

“There’s just so many good things that are going to come from this and we know that already,” says Rebecca.

“Uncle Tom always said gratitude is attitude, and that’s a belief that both Rebecca and I try and embody on a day to day basis,” adds Ryan.

As a young couple, Ryan and Rebecca hope to carry on Uncle Tom’s legacy for decades to come, which means a lot of sweet treats for visitors in northern Door County.

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