Talking candy with Allison Behringer
1. Tell us about Sweet Pete’s.
Sweet Pete’s is an all natural candy store. It’s very whimsical. It’s all about having fun. We consider it a madcap confectionary.
2. What kinds of candy do you feature?
We have all kinds of handmade chocolates and candies. We have 20 flavors of organic cotton candy, ice cream, ice cream sundaes, gummies, taffies, home made marshmallows … anything that’s a confectionary product is something we’d consider carrying. We make most of our candy but if there’s something we can't make then we look at bringing in someone else’s product, as long as it’s up to our standards.
3. How do you come up with all your candy ideas?
Pete loves the classic candies so that’s where he starts. We also have really good base recipes and once those are in place you can go in a lot of different directions by experimenting with flavors. For instance, Pete does a really good fondant, which is a cream center. Once you have a really good, hand made fondant, then you can easily turn that into a Bourbon Butter Cream or a Key Lime Center or other exotic flavors.
4. Why the focus on all-natural candies?
Initially when we were forming our concept for Sweet Pete’s we knew we wanted to do something with candy. We were out shopping and came across a pretty expensive lollipop that cost $8 and was being sold as a gourmet item. It was made in China and contained ingredients like titanium dioxide. That started the whole thing and got us going on about just making candy the way it was supposed to be made with pure ingredients. For us, we try to stick with no artificial flavors or colors, no high fructose corn syrup, and no hydrogenated fats. Those are the big things for us. Whenever possible we try to use tapioca syrup. At one point we were just too small to be able to order and store the quantities needed to make it cost effective but I think with our new place that won’t be an issue.
5. How did Sweet Pete’s get started?
After our family sold Peterbrooke in 2009 Peter and I weren’t sure what we were going to do. We looked around and ultimately came up with the concept of Sweet Pete’s. It was born out of all the different stores we’d seen and that made a mark on us - candy stores, retail stores, and all types of different stores.
6. What are your respective roles?
Pete is responsible for making the candy and I’m focused on the business side of Sweet Pete’s.
7. What do you like about the candy business?
It’s definitely fun. Customers come in in a good mood - they’re excited and happy when they’re getting candy. From a marketing perspective it’s an easy thing to work with. In terms of what we do, we sell at all different price points. We have really high end candy and corporate chocolate gifts but we also try to always have things that are really attainable, so even though it’s all natural, we try to keep our ice cream at a price point where anyone can come in with 4 kids and $10 and get out the door. It’s been really neat to see people from all economic backgrounds be able to come in and share time with their families.
8. Who’s the audience for Sweet Pete’s?
We have a very diverse mix - and that makes for a real marketing challenge. We need to have multiple approaches. Initially, what we knew from Peterbrooke’s was to focus on corporate business and gifts. That’s where our brains went to. We knew we wanted to do something different, which was why we brought in all these other candies like lollipops and taffies. We quickly learned that we had a whole different type of customer - people who just like the experience of bringing their family over for something to do while picking up some candy and ice cream. Now we have all those types of customers, from corporate to drop-ins looking for something to do. The class business is a whole other market. That ranges from kids' birthday parties to adults who really do want to learn the craft of making a truffle or a cherry cordial. We even get bachelorette parties that want to bring in a little wine and have some fun making chocolate before they go out. So, we really run the gamut.
9. What’s your most popular candy?
Our most popular candy is our Sea Salt Caramel. It’s a really, really true form of caramel that’s made in a small batch by someone who stands over it and stirs it for 45 minutes. It’s not a secret recipe so much as it’s investing the time in each pot. Once it’s cooked it’s sprinkled with sea salt over the top. Because of the way it’s made, with the sea salt on the top instead of being blended in, you get a punch of salt at the beginning, which our customers really like. With most mass-produced sea salt caramels you don’t get that because when you run it through a machine to wrap the candy it rips the salt off the top. All our caramel is hand wrapped and we don’t have any plans to change that - no matter how big we get.
10. Do you have any really exotic candy?
We have a lot. We have a line of spices. One of them is a Dark Chocolate Pink Peppercorn. It’s a peppercorn, enrobed in dark chocolate and rolled in bitter cocoa powder. Things like that are an acquired taste but they also have a real following. We’ve done events with restaurants where they’ve incorporated some of our more interesting spices into their dishes.
11. Have there been any big candy surprises?
Yes! We have these giant lollipops that we make in-house by hand. They’re $25 but they’re about the size of a dinner plate. We originally did them more as a display item that you could buy if you really wanted one. We put them on our website and were shocked at how many we sold. We ship them all over the place now.
12. Are there any hidden gems that you really love but aren’t as front of mind for a lot of people?
My personal, current favorite - and it changes every couple of weeks - is the Coconut Haystack. It’s organic coconut, soaked in rum and toasted before being blended in milk or dark chocolate.
13. How big a part are the candy making classes for Sweet Pete’s?
They’re a huge part. It wasn’t intentional and was never in our original plan to have them. We came to Springfield because our partner at the time had a property and it fit us from a financial position. We liked Springfield but the location wasn’t in a high traffic area so we had to work for all our customers. Going into our first Christmas we were trying to be creative. I knew Pete could make candy canes so we came up with the idea of having a class to let people shape their own candy canes. From there it really took off. We built on what we had by adding different classes, birthday parties, and other events to where it’s now a really big part of our business.
14. Are the classes mostly for kids?
They’re for everyone! We make all our classes, for any age level, a fun experience that’s entertaining and engaging. We want to go beyond just showing you how to make something. We want to find products that really allow people to get hands on. Last summer we were looking for something cool to add and we came up with our version of the blow pop. Although there were other candies, a blow pop allowed people to knead their own gum and roll it into balls. We really want to keep an emphasis on the hands on part of making candy.
15. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for your first reality TV show?
We were featured on a local show called “Like, Love, Want, Need.” Amy West is the host of that show. The producer was talking to us and said that we should do a reality show. We thought that was a great idea and agreed to it if they could figure out how to make it happen.
The producer worked to find sponsorships for the show. We did entry-level type production, so it’s not going to win an Academy Award, but it was really fun to do. We enjoyed ourselves and our customers seemed to like it. We got some good publicity along the way too. It had a pretty good following too.
16. Is it something you’d do again?
Yeah! As long as the show stayed focused on the candy and the shop we’d do it.
17. How did you get selected to be on The Profit?
We had hit a roadblock with our partner where we just couldn’t see a way to work together or grow as partners. We couldn’t think of any way forward so I just went online and applied on The Profit website.
18. That was it? How did you get picked from among all the others who applied?
There were 10,000 applications for season 2 and they chose 8 companies. I think we hit the perfect timing. I applied at 8 in the morning and got a call back by 4 that afternoon. They were looking for their last, final episode and were focused on that on the day I applied. They wanted someone in Florida because, logistically, they were also filming in Tampa and Key West and they wanted another company in Florida, so that helped us. On top of all that, the host, Marcus Lemonis, has always wanted to be in the candy business. I included a lot of pictures of our shop, so that also helped.
19. When did you film the show?
We started recording the second week of January  and finished in the last week of February. The film crew came back 3-4 times.
20. Was Marcus Lemonis there for all the filming or was he just there some of the times?
Marcus was here every time we filmed.
21. How did the filming work? Was it scripted?
It definitely wasn’t scripted. Before we’d been chosen we had an initial phone interview and then a Skype interview with the producer and then that producer pitched us to CNBC and Marcus. Marcus made the final choice - but just off the Skype interview, not from looking at our financials or anything like that. Once we’re chosen, only then do we send all our financial information and Marcus reviews it literally the last minute before he meets us because he doesn’t want to have a pre-disposed idea. Once Marcus is here he starts asking a lot of questions. He works with us a little bit and the story takes its own path from there. They have a whole team of people and the first day was really long - over 12 hours of filming. They would go back to their hotel room and that’s when Marcus could ask more questions about our background and the producer would share more of the documentation we’d sent earlier. From that first interaction on the first day the film crew decides to focus on certain strengths or weaknesses as part of the story line.
22. When you finally watched the show on TV were you surprised at how it came out or was it how you experienced it?
It was very much the way we thought it would be - we weren’t surprised.
23. When Marcus made an offer to invest in Sweet Pete’s had you seen the offer before it was presented on TV? And did you get time to think about it?
We didn’t know in advance. We’d been told that we wouldn’t have a lot of time to think about the offer and that we’d need to be prepared. Because we knew that we’d have to decide quickly Pete and I spent a lot of time talking among ourselves to decide what we could accept and what we couldn’t. We had parameters for how much of an investment we wanted, and we wanted to have a certain amount of equity without our prior partner being involved. If we got those things then we were going to do it.
24. What did you think of the $750,000 offer that Marcus made for 50% of Sweet Pete’s?
It was way beyond what we were expecting. Of all the episodes of The Profit that we’ve watched we feel like we got the best offer Marcus has ever made. And it’s not just the money. Along with the investment Marcus brings a lot of infrastructure and a team of people to help us grow the business and bring it to the next level. Marcus bought into us because of the potential he saw to bring the store to the next level. We were very excited.
25. Is Marcus similar in person to what you see on TV?
Yes. He’s focused and very much to the point, and he’s definitely very hands on. We talk to him probably twice a week.
26. Does Marcus stay involved after the show is over?
Yes. He has a team who’s more involved in the day-to-day activities for things like marketing and branding and execution of the overall plan. Marcus is more on the visionary side of things whereas we’re focused on the execution now. We have a conference call every week where we discuss what’s been accomplished and what our goals are and Marcus is on those calls.
27. What was the hardest part about doing the show?
The first couple of days it was a little stressful because we didn’t know what was going to happen. The film crew was off shooting scenes with our partner and for all we knew they could have build a story around what he was saying. We didn’t have any idea, so that was a little stressful. At one point we were just stressed because on days they were filming you didn’t feel like you owned yourself. You had a mike on all day, everywhere you went. You have to be available whenever the crew needed you. The crew would set the topics we needed to talk about at any particular time so we had to be ready for anything. Finally, Pete said, if we’re going to do this, let’s just admit that we don’t own ourselves right now and try to have some fun. After that it was a lot easier and less stressful.
28. What was the funnest part of the show?
Obviously the outcome - it was so amazing and fun. The whole thing has been very exciting. Our lives are definitely not mundane or boring.
29. How have things changed since the show?
We’re way busier but we also have a lot more resources now that allow us to do things we couldn’t before. For example, we’re going through a packaging re-design now. We’re working with a graphics team and can really come up with any idea so long as it helps the business. We’re also able to buy a lot more in bulk then we ever could have before. It’s really neat to be part of a team where everyone is saying they’re going to help take Sweet Pete’s to the national level.
30. Is your plan to franchise Sweet Pete’s?
We haven’t decided on a growth strategy yet. We’re definitely going into the wholesale arena and our website sales are really taking off. Compared to April a year ago and April this year our web sales have grown over 300%.
31. Did anything about the show really surprise you?
We’ve been shocked by the feedback. I love The Profit and I watch it all the time but I had no idea how many other people watch that show. People from all over the country are stopping by when they pass through Jacksonville because they saw us on The Profit. The first week after the show our phone was ringing off the hook. And we got all sorts of calls. People would tell us about being in business and losing their business. Others just wanted to call to say that they were so supportive of us or were so happy to see people work hard and make it. We’ve been inundated with those kinds of emails and phone calls.
32. Did Marcus bring any ideas to you that you really didn’t like? And what was his reaction if you pushed back?
Marcus is definitely open to discussing ideas. It was never “my way or the highway” for any of us. We’re involved with him in all the major discussions. The biggest controversy we had with Marcus was around the location of the new store. For obvious reasons Marcus wanted to be in a really mainstream location that already had a lot of foot traffic - somewhere like the St. Johns Town Center. For Pete and I, having been in Springfield, we really felt like we were part of something and that opening our store in Springfield had really made a difference. We live in that area too and it was really important to us to do something in the area. We were really passionate about staying closer to downtown and on every visit Marcus made that was a major topic of discussion. It wasn’t until his final visit that we convinced him.
33. How did you convince Marcus to locate Sweet Pete’s downtown?
Originally we had pitched the Seminole Club to Marcus and he turned it down because it was too big and he couldn’t work the numbers to substantiate such a large presence downtown. He really wanted to go to the Town Center but we kept pressing and pressing for downtown. He finally came back and said that we were so passionate about it that he didn’t think we’d have our hearts in it if he forced us to be anywhere else. That’s when he really focused on making downtown work. Because internet sales are such a big component for us that gives us a cushion in case the retail sales don’t work out the way we hope. That helped a lot to convince Marcus about downtown. Once the show aired our internet sales went crazy and they’ve stayed high. We’ve also gotten a lot of class requests. All of a sudden Marcus was worried that the 10,000 square foot space we’d been looking at on Forsyth might be too small and we might grow out of it too quickly. Marcus sent someone from his team to start looking for larger spaces downtown. That person, with no input from us, came across the Seminole Club. He sent us a text asking what we thought of the Seminole Club and what we knew about it. We were thinking “is this a joke?” So, it worked out perfect for us.
34. Can you tell us about the mobile candy truck that Marcus surprised you with on the show? Was it really a surprise?
We didn’t know about it at all so we were really surprised. We’d heard some hints that there might be a Sweet Pete’s car, but they were just rumors. We’d been sharing an old, used car, so this was a really big deal for us.
35. Is the mobile truck live now?
It will be soon. The truck had all the major things in it that we needed but we had to add equipment for ice cream and cotton candy. We’re just getting time to breathe now so that we can concentrate on finishing the truck. Our goal is to have it out at a festival by the end of June .
36. Will the truck be mostly based around Jacksonville or will it tour around the country?
It’ll mostly be in Jacksonville at festivals and for people to book for parties. But we’ll definitely take it on the road too.
37. Do you know when you’ll be in your new location downtown?
Our goal is to be there sometime in October . We’re just working on exactly what we want to do with the space. Marcus has some complementary dessert companies that will probably share the space with us so we can all support each other and help drive more traffic overall. But the emphasis will be on Sweet Pete’s and making the store a candy destination.
38. How big will your staff be in Jacksonville?
We expect to be around 40 people to start.
39. Going forward, with so much change, will you and Pete have similar roles to what you’re doing now at Sweet Pete’s?
Our new space will have a test kitchen, which we don’t have now. That will allow Pete to do a lot of R&D. He’ll be the face of the company too. Pete loves to do the classes and he’ll do some but he won’t be able to do them all. He’ll also move from being really hands on to overseeing the daily production. I’ll be overseeing the business side of things. That’ll include working on the marketing but now I’ll have some help from Marcus’s team.
40. What do you think Sweet Pete’s will look like in a few years?
The ride has been crazy for us so far. We had been in Peterbooke and decided to franchise with Pete’s mom and grow to 25 stores. Well, that didn’t end up working out for us and all of a sudden it was like we’d lost a dream. Who’d have ever thought that we’d be completely broke and be able to take $10,000 and re-build it to this? It’s really hard to wrap our heads around what Sweet Pete’s can become. There are so many great possibilities ahead. We definitely see growing into much more of a national brand. Pete and I both have our families here so we see ourselves staying in Jacksonville, but you never know what’s going to happen and we need to stay flexible to grow wherever the business takes us.
41. Pete has a very distinctive look. Has he always looked like that? And does he gel his hair to make the way it does?
He does gel it up! He and I have been together since 1998 and his hair has always been like it is now, he just had much more of it before. I can’t see him with a comb over. The way it is is just Pete.