How Dylan Lauren broke through a sugar-stuffed market and built Dylan’s Candy Bar, one of the most beloved sweets brands in the world.
Dylan Lauren has just taken a bite out of an organic peanut butter cup, let out a sound almost identical to Lucille Ball’s signature “uugh,” and promptly spat out the barely masticated substance into a napkin. She then slides one across the table and suggests that I try it for myself. So I do, and she’s right—it’s terrible, and tastes every bit as you’d expect a sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free Reese’s cup facsimile would.
I’m sitting in on a biweekly licensing meeting at the Upper East Side headquarters of Dylan’s Candy Bar, where buyers Lauren Ulstad and Michele Polito present Lauren, who is the cofounder and CEO of the eponymous confectionery empire (and is intent on tasting and testing every single thing her company sells), with samples of products from manufacturers around the world that could sit alongside signature items such as the Whirly Pop lollipop and chocolate-covered Swedish fish. There have been some winners today—from a bar of strawberry almond nougat to a candy glow stick for the upcoming Halloween season—but one thing’s for sure: The “peanut double chocolate honey patties” ain’t happening.
After all, Lauren didn’t build her candy queendom by selling yucky product. Founded in 2001, Dylan’s Candy Bar now boasts 19 store locations across the U.S.—including eight “minicandybars” at major airports, such as JFK and Houston George Bush—which carry more than 7,000 different types of treats and see more than six million visitors a year. Sales have grown 20 percent year over year for the past three years, executives tell me. Fans of Lauren’s emporium include Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, and Suri Cruise, while properties from Wonder Woman to Despicable Me and Hello Kitty clamor to partner with the company for cobranded treats, toys, trinkets, and other commemorative items. Lauren herself has been immortalized as a collector’s Barbie doll, and currently appears as a mentor on ABC’s Shark Tank for tykes, The Toy Box.
Despite consumers’ shifting toward healthier foods and away from certain sugary indulgences (see: chocolate honey patties), the confectionery industry is surprisingly robust and thriving. Americans spent more than $21.5 billion on candy last year, according to Nielsen, with annual candy sales growing 2 percent to 4 percent over the past five. But that doesn’t mean entering the market was easy. It’s extremely crowded and full of major players with a bazillion products—from Mars and Hershey’s to raspberry sour Warheads and buttered-popcorn-flavored Jelly Bellies. Even a savvy candy fan like Lauren could get lost in the noise.
But there was an opening. “Some of the standard, conventional candy that has been on the market for years hasn’t innovated,” says Marcia Mogelon sky, a confectionery analyst at Mintel. “When you go into a supermarket and go to the candy aisle, there’s nothing that jumps out at you.”
This left an opportunity to make the kind of candy people talk about. But Lauren had a hunch, based on her own saccharine obsession: The candy itself—even the best candy she could find—would take her only so far. She had to make the experience of buying candy just as sweet.
When Lauren flings open the door to her 15,000-square foot flagship store, a mere three blocks from her corporate offices, it’s like walking into Willy Wonka’s factory—and I imagine the 100 or so visitors and tourists who are scurrying about the place at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday must feel the same.
Part of the wonderment of a Dylan’s store is the sheer volume and assortment of candy that enraptures visitors as they enter. Here, at the front of the store, Lauren has personally plucked what she believes are the best treats from around the world—some of which she white labels and brings under the Dylan’s brand umbrella, such as the Whirly Pops and Dylan’s Candy Bar chocolate bars, while some brands stand on their own, either for nostalgia’s sake (there’s actually a “nostalgia corner,” featuring Life Savers, Charleston Chews, and artwork from vintage ads) or because they convey a slightly different message than the signature Dylan’s whimsy.
Then there’s the sheer scale and proportion of the place that unfolds before them. There’s the giant lollipop tree, with its translucent, Technicolored sucker-branches stretching over their heads; the 10-foot-wide tackle box of gum balls, gummy bears, and Runts hanging behind the cash register; and the glowing staircase, constructed with actual gummy snacks and candy necklaces, stretching upward across the building’s three floors, literally enticing customers with each step they take. As I marvel over the space, Lauren— who I am realizing is equally hilarious and meticulous—somehow zeroes in on what isn’t excessive enough. “I have to tell Lauren [Ulstad] that we don’t have enough bunnies here!” she yells over the Counting Crows hit “Hard Candy,” standing in front of a Shaq-size chocolate bunny, which is flanked by a shelf of candied hares,eggs, and other confections. (We’re here just before Easter.)
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