The Sweet Life | Rosie O’Neill of Sugarfina
Rosie O’Neill has the kind of job any kid would dream of. Surrounded by candy all day every day, from taste testing to photo shoots to coming up with new flavors, it is truly a confectionery dream. As co-founder of Sugarfina, her passion, determination and presence is seen in every facet of the brand and is truly what this luxury candy store is all about.
“I was the director of marketing at Barbie so I had another little kid dream job before I started a candy store. Before that I was in business school. My background was mostly on branding and marketing so I have no creative training or background in an official capacity but it’s just something I am really passionate about. I have always had photography and graphic design as a hobby, but it was really when we started Sugarfina that I had to develop those skills and put them to use.”
The company has some sweet beginnings actually being founded by husband and wife duo, Josh Resnick and Rosie O’Neill.
“Josh took me to see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on our third date and after the movie, we had this brainstorm of why should kids have all the fun? Why isn’t there a candy store for grownups? Why has candy become the sort of gross experience where you are sticking your hand in a bin and shoveling candy into a bag? Why isn’t there something that is more sophisticated and with better quality candy? Nothing like that existed – Josh and I travel a lot so we knew that there were really high quality candies out there, that had not been brought over to the US. Even in Europe, no one was doing this elevated presentation of what a sweets boutique could look like. So we started brainstorming this idea and then it was in 2012 that we officially quit our jobs and decided to start the company”
Rosie admits that opening up a grown up candy store didn’t get the best of reactions from her peers.
“Everyone thought we were crazy. When you tell people, ‘hey we are going to go start a candy store,’ immediately what jumps to their mind is what they know so like the old timey mom and pop penny barrel shop. It was definitely something we could see very clearly in our heads even though nothing like it had existed.”
The name, just like the concept came about swiftly and with a resounding decision.
“We came up with the name when we were having lunch at this Italian restaurant and we had a very long list of about 100 terrible names. We knew we wanted to have the word Sugar in the name – there was something we really liked about that and it made the concept very obvious. I think because we were looking at the Italian menu the word Fina came about and the meaning being very fine quality so we put the two together and I said well what about, “Sugarfina” and Josh loved it! So I pulled out my phone and I bought the domain name right there at the table. It all came together very fast.”
Sugarfina launched online in the summer of 2012 and opened their first store in November 2013. They are now in over 50 locations, in all of the top department stores, and five star hotels. With department stores specifically, they are able to have relationships with them based on strategy and need of the consumer.
“We work with Nordstrom in two ways, the first is the standard wholesale relationship where we sell to them and they have our product in their home and gift department. And the other is the shop in shop concept where we are actually building out little mini Sugarfina boutiques inside Nordstrom. We have 15 of those. It started in Canada with a beautiful shop concept at their Vancouver location. It was so successful that we started to look to expand it into the US. It’s been great. We love working with Nordstrom. A lot of our brand fans love to find Sugarfina at their local Nordstrom which is wonderful.”
You can also find Sugarfina at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Harvey Nichols and Harrods in the UK. But when you walk into a Sugarfina store, there are a few things that are always at the forefront, no matter if you are visiting in New York City or Seattle.
“We want our stores to look dramatically different than any other candy store you’ve ever seen. Our goal was for it to resemble a jewelry store or cosmetics store, very high end, very clean and definitely making the store the canvas for the candy and the packaging. We didn’t necessarily want the store itself to be what you immediately notice. It’s a little minimalist but also sets the tone of an elegant upscale look. The other thing was the experiential aspect. There were two concepts that existed when it came to candy – the extremely informal candy store where you’re shoveling candy into a plastic bag and this kind of intimidating format where you have to talk to someone behind a counter and have them help you put a box of chocolates together. We wanted to do something different so we used Sephora as a model. I think what Sephora did with makeup is really amazing. They did it in a way that you could touch and feel and play with everything but in a way that felt upscale. The whole design your own bento box that we came up with was meant to allow people to customize and play and put lots of things together but everything is prepackaged so it feels very high end and clean and organized. People love that tactile element of being able to pick it up so that was the experience aspect of it too. Lastly, we were launching right around the time that Instagram was starting to take off. I could see that that’s where things were going and that we wanted our stores to be a beautiful photo back drop. We designed the store in all white to make sure that it was very easy to get beautiful, bright, colorful photos in our store. When you take a photo in our store, it doesn’t require a lot of filters.”
"We want our stores to look dramatically different than any other candy store you’ve ever seen."
The slogan at Sugarfina is “Spread Sweetness” and aside from the candy nod, we were curious what this phrase meant to Rosie and where it came from.
“That actually came out of our internal mission and values offsite that we did with our team. We wanted to have a company mission that was very memorable and easy to understand and not like a three sentence long mission statement. That’s kind of my pet peeve. So “Spread Sweetness” really kind of hit to the heart of all the different things we’re looking to do. On the most obvious surface, it’s just creating these amazing guest experiences and making sure that every touch point we have with our customers is very sweet and memorable. Our goal is to be the sweetest part of their day. It also goes to growth to expand and we’re looking to spread sweetness overseas and different countries and so it kind of speaks to that growth message at the same time as it speaks to the experience.”
"The entrepreneurial path is really not for everyone..."
Their partnerships with candy makers all across the globe are truly what makes Sugarfina so unique.
“We work with the finest candy makers to produce our candies exclusively for Sugarfina. We’ll come up with the shape and color and flavor and design and they will produce it for us. The majority of our line is exclusive to Sugarfina. You walk into our stores and it’s a totally different selection of candies than you can find anywhere else.”
Rosie emphasizes the importance of persistence – something she attributes the success of Sugarfina to.
“I think the importance of persistence, having grown up in the corporate world, you can always go home and shake things off and you go in the next day and things are fine. When you have your own business it’s just a different level of pressure and stress on you all the time. One of the big secrets of us being able to have all the success we have, in addition to having an amazing team, Josh and I are just two people who will never give up. We will be standing at the bottom of the hill and people will be pushing boulders down on us and we are going to keep climbing and doing it. I think that personal resilience is something I have definitely had to build up within myself. The good thing is I could probably survive an apocalypse at this point.”
Rosie shared some advice to people looking to delve into entrepreneurial arena. She notes it is a long road and certainly not for everyone.
“I always say to know yourself really well. The entrepreneurial path is really not for everyone. Just because it’s not for you doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. You really have to know who you are as a person and what makes you tick. I happen to be one of those people who can’t imagine not working on something I own. For me what is unique is that I found something that I consider my life’s work and am really passionate about. I would say only start a business if you feel like you found that. Be really careful before you go down this path. It’s going to take over your life and that can be a great thing and can also be a frustrating thing so keep your eyes and ears wide open when starting a business.”
We can only imagine what a day in the office is like. Taste testing candies, green juice gummy bears for breakfast, chocolate berry basket for an afternoon snack… So of course, we needed to know Rosie’s go to candy.
“I love grapefruit and we actually didn’t have any grapefruit candies until about 9 months ago and then we launched two at the same time: Pink Flamingo grapefruit flavored candies and Tequila Grapefruit sours which are like tart sour grapefruit gummies. They are both amazing and I probably eat a lot more of them than I should.”