|The Candy Store was adjacent to the Tradewinds Hotel|
By Jane Feehan
A few years ago, someone suggested I write histories of restaurants and clubs in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. I pointed out that unless establishments made the news, there wouldn’t be much to write about; owners are/were too busy trying to keep the doors open to think about legacy. Most go out of business.
But a few spots did make the news. One of them was the infamous Candy Store at 1 North Atlantic Boulevard on Fort Lauderdale beach, adjacent to then-named Caribbean West Trade Winds Hotel.* Popular for its wet T-shirt, Teenie Weenie Bikini, belly flop, beer guzzling contests and a lineup of other slothful student activities of the Spring Break years, the Candy Store packed in 2,000 during the day and 3,000 patrons at night during the height of its popularity, which one manager deemed was 1986. That year, more than 325,000 young people swarmed the beach for the six-week bacchanal. (Some news stories indicate 380,000 Spring Breakers visited the city in 1985.)
Owner Bobby “Van” Vannuchi, opened the Candy Store in 1977 (its beloved beach predecessor, The Button Lounge opened in 1970). A friend of football great and party hearty guy Joe Namath, Van also had an interest in Namath’s Bachelor’s III, and owned Mr. Laffs and Mr. Pips, all in Fort Lauderdale.
According to Van, he employed as many as 350 at the Candy Store during Spring Break. That’s what he told Daytona Beach officials in 1989 where he was opening another Candy Store on Grandview Avenue (he also owned one in New York City.) He was getting nervous about things in Fort Lauderdale; the welcome mat for students coming to that city was about to be pulled.
The Spring Break business climate was changing in Fort Lauderdale. Commissioners had had enough of the city’s demeaning party image. It wasn’t attracting the development needed to expand its tax base. And, in 1987 as many as 12 students were killed in Florida during Spring Break in alcohol and drug-related incidents. The Candy Store was emblematic of all the city was trying to get rid of so it became a major target—and tactic—of dismantling the festivities that began in 1935 and increased in popularity with the 1960 release of the film Where the Boys Are.
The City of Fort Lauderdale cited the Candy Store for 52 code violations in April, 1989 that included plumbing, electrical and fire and safety infractions. Additionally, it was to lose its liquor license, which was predicated upon the club operating adjacent to a hotel with at least 50 rooms. That hotel, the Caribbean Tradewinds, entered bankruptcy in 1988 or 1989 and was to close.
Van also had problems in Daytona. He paid $375,000 for his new 15,000 square foot club and about $500,000 for renovations. City officials raised zoning concerns and tried to block the opening for six months; its pending moratorium on issuing building permits was overturned by the 5th Court of Appeals in March 1989. Van planned to go ahead and open before the end of that year’s Spring Break. The Candy Store in Daytona remained open until March, 1991. He retained part ownership rights on the building and leased it to another nightclub impresario. (The fate of the NYC club is unknown to this writer.)
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale could claim success in its re-imaging efforts: only 20,000 students flocked to its beaches in 1989. By 1990, business at the Candy Store was reportedly off 50 percent (at least). The club limped along until 1993 when it shut its doors. Bobby Van remained in the restaurant biz as late as 2005 when he owned Jilly’s Café at 2761 E. Oakland Park Boulevard; it has since closed.
The Candy Store still evokes fond memories. On one message board, a man asked recently if anyone knew the tall blonde bartender he went out with in 1986. He wanted to reconnect but lost her name and phone number (hilarious - she could be a grandmother now). Others remember Paul W. Lorenzo, managing partner in 1983 who dressed in shorts, tuxedo jacket and tie and one of his 700 zany hats. Anyone who gave him a hat earned a free lifetime membership to the Candy Store. Today, that membership is to a hall of memories of Spring Break madness. The only place still operating along the strip is the Elbo Room first opened in 1936 or 1938. No doubt people gather there on occasion to share stories about Bobby Van's place.
Note: The Ritz Carlton Hotel currently sits at the old site of the Candy Store.
*The original Trade Winds Oceanfront Hotel was built in 1940, one of the city's largest at the time.
Tags: Fort Lauderdale clubs, Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s, Fort Lauderdale Spring Break
Lakeland Star Ledger, April 3, 1983
Star News, Feb. 19, 1987
News-Journal, Feb. 4, 1989
News-Journal, Feb. 17, 1989
Ocala Star Banner, Nov. 25, 1990
News-Journal, Feb. 19, 1992
Sun-Sentinel, Nov. 15, 1996
NBC News, March 17, 2008