WINTER/SPRING 2015 / VOL. 15 ISSUE 1
Sweet! Sugarfina and Rosie O'Neill

By James Bartlett 

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It sounds like the golden ticket for the daily grind: running a candy store full of delicious delights, and traveling the world sampling chocolate and sweets of all kinds to line the shelves. 

 

After leaving an outdoor screening of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on just their third date, Rosie O'Neill and Josh Resnick laughingly wondered whether that fantasy could ever really happen.

Just a few years later, the now-engaged couple was standing in front of Sugarfina, their new candy store in Beverly Hills, and then moments later the doors were opened and people started tasting samples…

Speaking just before the Valentine's Day rush kicks in, O'Neill, 35, recalled her childhood as the eldest among six children, and how sweets were "a little bit forbidden, which of course makes you want them so much more. I grew up craving sweets and sugar, so this job is like my dream come true. I often think 'it can't be real.'"

Those childhood memories affected the choices she made for Sugarfina too. "We grew up with American, artificial-tasting candy, and there's such a big contrast with proper candy, when you're making it with real sugar and cream, as opposed to corn syrup and imitation chocolate."

Born in Kansas City, Mo., and bought up in Southern California, her full name Rosie Colleen O'Neill shows that the family has a strong connection to Ireland. "My aunts, the keepers of all things O'Neill, went there recently on a tourism genealogy trip," she says, "and they found out that I am 5th generation; my great-great-grandparents came over from Co. Wicklow." 

Describing the store as selling "candy for grown-ups" but adding that many kids come in too, O'Neill confesses to being a "super-adventurous foodie. I'll try anything and everything. I love weird food; the weirder the better. But then I've never, Scout's Honor, eaten a corn dog!"

Early on, she admits that her favorite chocolate is dark chocolate. "I've been a fiend for it from the beginning," she laughs, remembering when a pastry chef friend bought her a bag of dark chocolate discs that they use to cook with. "It was like a 20-pound dog-food sized bag, and I would just pop those."

As for the customers - a mix of tourists, chi-chi shoppers, local and yes, some celebrities.

O'Neill confirms that the Champagne Gummy Bears are "far and away" the number one choice ("and one of my personal favorites," she adds), but that the Peach Bellini is extremely popular too ("they're a bit sour and tart, and they smell amazing,") and that lots of men go for the Cuba Libre (spiced rum and cola) Gummies.

Many people are surprised to learn that Gummy Bears were in fact invented in Germany, where they're made with sugar and glucose syrup. "Here in the US, they're made with the cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which makes the texture firmer," says O'Neill, revealing that she has their gummy bears "stashed almost everywhere - at home, in the car, in the office, in my purse sometimes." 

Tasting the wares is a serious business though, and O'Neill insists that it never gets boring. "We have such a wide range of candy that whatever mood I'm in, we have something for. I eat candy, seriously, every day," she says, adding proudly that she has zero cavities: "I'm a good flosser."

When it's time for tasting, O'Neill insists that candy is served at room temperature, like red wine, "because it is like tasting wine. We look at the appearance, the aroma, then the taste. Typically I'll eat one whole one first, because that's how most people eat candy, but then I'll notice the texture and the aftertaste."

There's no checklist or marks out of 10 per se, but the Sugarfina standards are tough. "More than half of our candies are exclusive in the States, and now that's all we're looking for: something that people can't see - or taste - anywhere else." It means that O'Neill has to be what she calls a candy snob. "I taste thousands of candies every year, but we only have 140 in the store."

After selecting a candy or chocolate, Rosie and Josh give it to their team to try, though they also have a special tasting squad at home: teenage stepchildren Elan, Sammy and Tasha. "Can you imagine being a kid growing up, and your parents running a candy store?" laughs O'Neill.

There are sea salt caramels and bacon candies aplenty on the shelves here, but there is however one sweet that many people will never make a bee line for: licorice. Black licorice is an acquired taste notes O'Neill, adding that while it seems most Americans aren't keen, she's a huge fan. "Often I'll suggest the Licorice Cubes, a brown licorice, and I joke that it's the gateway drug to black licorice. It's soft with a sugar coating, has a warm flavor, and is a nice way to ease yourself in. It's really good!"

Another delicacy you won't find at Sugarfina is truffles. They have a shorter shelf life and can be very delicate, O'Neill explains, and there are already "so many stores that do truffles beautifully. We wanted to be different."

Sometimes the sweets they taste are too different, though. "When we were in Indonesia, we were in a region where there's a fruit called durian. People describe its smell as like rotting flesh, extremely pungent, and they don't let most stores sell it. So of course I had to try the durian candy: how could I not?" She pauses. "But it pretty much smelled and tasted like the fruit," she says, then adding diplomatically: "I didn't think it would work for the store." 

O'Neill looks after the creative, marketing, and sales side of things while Josh handles the finance, legal, and operations area, though living and working together so intensely isn't a problem for them. "We've been together five years, and we're like two halves of the same person. it still feels like we're at summer camp, working on a project together."

That "project" saw an initial investment of $30,000 each, and while she and Josh still worked their "day jobs," they built up a collection of sweets from other countries that they knew no one else had. But still: candy for adults? 

O'Neill had an MBA and a Communication Studies degree, as well as many years experience in public relations and marketing (including time at Mattel, when she worked on Barbie's 50th Anniversary campaign and Ken and Barbie's "Together Again" romance), but a year before leaving Mattel she went minimal, moving into a studio apartment, getting a less expensive car, and living on $100 a week - ideal training for starting a small business.

Resnick may have had it easier - he had made a lucrative deal selling his video game design firm back in 2007 - but again: candy for adults? They ventured out online initially (it's still a large part of the business), before making the big leap into bricks-and-mortar in Beverly Hills, at a store right off fancy Rodeo Drive.

Success has come quickly for Sugarfina, and the couple now has stores in two other California locations (The Americana at Brand in Glendale and the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa). Later this year, they're expanding into the Bay area, and also New York/the East Coast.

That success has meant there's too little time for O'Neill's own kitchen experiment: making chocolate-dipped champagne gummy bears, and some personal things have had to be put aside too. "We won't get married this year," says O'Neill. "We just don't have time - we're too busy having store babies!" 

As the resident photographer and designer, O'Neill was responsible for the look of the flagship store in Beverly Hills. Searching for something "fun, accessible and playful," she was inspired by the work of British artist and noted L.A. resident David Hockney. "He did this swimming pool series that's classic California, and there was a particular Tiffany blue in one of them that I used for our bento gift boxes."

Inside the minimalist store, it's a mix of blue boxes, gold and silver trim, large glass jars of candy, and - of course - the main reason everyone is there: rows and rows of equally spaced clear plastic boxes (a bit reminiscent of Rubik's cubes), each with colorful treats inside. 

The little boxes cost $7 and weigh just 3.5 oz or 90 grams or so each, though the store deliveries are far weightier. "We import candy by the ton - we have two 40-foot containers showing up in a couple of days," she says, before being reminded of their biggest sale. "Early on we had a clear plastic steamer trunk filled with candy on display. It was $5,000, and somebody came right in and bought it: a princess from Saudi Arabia. That's what you get in Beverly Hills!"

The store has a special "Candy Concierge" service for movie studio events, Oscar parties, Golden Globe parties, birthdays and weddings, and celebrities have been quick to come in a check it out. O'Neill rolls off a list including Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Saldana, Sofia Vergara, Martha Stewart, Jessica Alba, Bob Dylan and even Justin Bieber (who of course received a ticket for illegally parking outside) - and that's just the names that have been reported in the press.

In the next few weeks, Rosie and Josh are going to visit the International Candy Show in Germany, though en route they will be stopping in London where they would also love to have a store - and maybe find a supplier or partner. "At the moment the store has candies from countries including Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Finland, Belgium and of course the United States - because importing can be hard," says O'Neill. "Chocolate will sometimes melt on the way over." 

Searching out the best tastes has seen Rosie and Josh travel round the world, and they pride themselves in working with small candy makers. "In the factories there will still be a guy stirring the pot of chocolate, and I've been surprised at how manual - and how complex - the process is. Making candy is hard!"

After just one last sample of chocolate, Rosie was asked about her ideas for the next big holiday that's coming up. "We do 'Shop and Get Lucky," where you get a free gift with every purchase," she said, "and we change out the cute slogans on the cube labels and put things like "Luck of the Irish" or "Kiss Me I'm Irish." As for a special candy, they will be showcasing Irish Mocha Beans, which are a green Bailey's-flavored chocolate-covered coffee bean. 

At home, Rosie and Josh will host a St. Patrick’s Day party with an Irish beer tasting, plus shamrock shakes and green food for the kids, though it's perhaps a surprise to learn that she's not actually visited Ireland yet. "I'm really looking forward to going one day, to learn a little bit about my history - and of course to do a candy exploration!"

For more information: www.sugarfina.com, 855-784-2734.
 
 


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