From the moment The Takeout staff learned about the existence of Chocolate Storybook, the candy company in West Des Moines, Iowa, that produces an almost ridiculous amount of, shall we say, unusual cotton candy flavors, we were obsessed. And we wondered, what sort of mind could develop the idea of pickle-flavored cotton candy? That mind belongs to Meg Shearer, who was more than happy to chat with me on the phone about the ins and outs of the novelty cotton candy biz. (Is that an oxymoron? Isn’t all cotton candy a novelty?)
The Takeout: How did you start making cotton candy in the first place?
Meg Shearer: We own a chocolate factory, and had been making chocolates and other things for 20-something years. A few years ago, we bought the assets of a company in Minneapolis that went out of business and acquired 10 commercial cotton candy machines with it. I thought about selling about the machines and sold out half. Then I set up a machine in my kitchen. How hard can this be? I thought. I’d never made cotton candy in my life, and I started tinkering around. Soon I had a few clients and customers I was shipping to wholesale. Then I started thinking about other flavors. The only available flossines—
TO: Sorry, what are those?
MS: Those are sugars and flavors mixed together to work well with the cotton candy machine. They come in all the basic flavors you can imagine: blue raspberry, cherry, apple, banana. I thought, how can I distinguish my cotton candy from regular people? I started researching flavorings and colorings, and one thing led to another.
TO: What was the first flavor you developed?
MS: Chardonnay. Chardonnay and merlot. I thought they were delicious, but they were terrible sellers. The next batch of flavors we developed became so much more popular: bacon and cupcake. We started getting a lot of traction. We put them on our website and people started to find us, big retailers like the Burlington stores and Bed Bath and Beyond. We were making 200 tubs a day, and then Bed Bath and Beyond came along and ordered a couple thousand tubs. It was really stressful. Then more and more places started contacting us, like IT’SUGAR. We went to town developing things. It’s been about six years and we have 55 flavors.
We work with a lot of good clients and wholesale customers who want to do custom flavors. We just started working with Hershey. We’re developing a chocolate flavored cotton candy for Hershey World in Vegas and Pennsylvania. That’s exciting for me.
TO: Do you still use those original five machines?
MS: We could only run two machines at once. If we tried more, we blew a fuse every time. Two years ago, we realized we had to find more room. We found a space and retrofitted it for a cotton candy factory. So many food safety mechanisms have to be put in place: You have to develop a food safety plan and have special flooring and walls that are permanently cleanable. Cotton candy is is messy. It flies everywhere. But we can run ten machines at a time now. We started making, on a good day, 1,700 tubs. Today, I was just talking to the plant manager and learned we set a new record: 5,600.
TO: That is a lot of cotton candy. What are your best-sellers?
MS: People seem to want to try the crazy flavors. Pickle is number five. We can’t keep it in stock. The bizarre flavors hang around for a year or two. Right now we have Ketchup and Fries and Pizza. Sometimes they stick around, like Bacon. But the two most popular are still classic pink and blue raspberry. It’s very telling. People still do crave that original good old-fashioned cotton candy that they remember from their youth.
TO: What’s the inspiration for some of those crazy flavors?
MS: I started looking on the internet for ideas. There wasn’t much out there. Learned that hard candy can be used [to make flossines]. I still use Root Beer Barrels for Root Beer cotton candy. At first I was looking for hard candies, and then I started looking for suppliers of ingredients. I started working with a food scientist [at one of my suppliers], who helped me unlock a lot of secrets. I started getting interested in all-natural flavors. A lot of my early flavors, like Chardonnay, Merlot, and Apple Pie, were all-natural. I learned to use colorants and flavors by trial and error. I thought I was doing something unique, all-natural cotton candy. But people didn’t want it. They want the regular stuff. There’s still a certain percentage of people who want vegan cotton candy. You might think cotton candy is vegan, but if you really drill down, you’ll find that the sugars are cured over bone char. That makes them not as vegan-friendly. Real vegans won’t eat that kind of sugar.
Then, doing labels, I thought I was onto something for people with allergies, but in the world of wholesale food, you have to get certified to make claims. We haven’t gotten to that detail yet. Most people who are trying to avoid dairy just read ingredients. There’s a big niche of people who have a hard time with certain foods and digestion issues, and they just love the cotton candy. It was appealing to a wide variety of people, and I started listening to everybody when they said things like, “How about banana split?”
The ability of these flavor companies that work with me is uncanny. They’ll make anything I ask them. I email them something like, “I’m thinking about doing pickle cotton candy.” They’ll send me pickle [flavor samples]. I determined we needed more sour flavor. We drilled down into the food notes and worked to develop super pickle. We combined the original flavor with a more basic dill powder for that feeling in that side of your cheek when you’ve got something sour. It’s a fun process. It can also make you sick to your stomach when tasting a lot of it at eight in the morning with an empty stomach.
TO: What’s your favorite?
MS: I tell people that picking a favorite flavor is like picking a favorite child. I’m intimately acquainted with every flavor. When you’re running cotton candy, you need to give the machine 15 minutes to burn out [the previous] flavor. I can still tell if banana was made before cherry.
TO: What are you planning next?
MS: Business has grown so much. We still have the chocolate side, too, and I’ve been so hands-on with every flavor. But I have someone working for me now who gets it. I let her develop Peppermint Mocha on her own. It’s time to pass the mantle. Then I’ll taste her batches.
For a while there, people would say, “Cotton candy is having a moment.” It’s always going to be popular with a certain group of people. Other people say they don’t like it. But they haven’t tried our cotton candy. We can often sway them.