It’Sugar brings mega-size candy to Chinatown

On Wednesday, Aczuan Ragland ate a 5-pound gummy bear in one sitting. It cost him $39.99 and took less than 20 minutes to devour.

The next day, the 19-year-old was back at It’Sugar in Chinatown for more candy.

“I’ve been here every day since they opened,” said Ragland, who works at a nearby Crumbs Bake Shop. “I just really like sweets.”

It’Sugar, which opened its doors last Monday, is the brainchild of Jeff Rubin, who started FAO Schweetz, the candy shop inside toy store FAO Schwarz, and co-founded sweet shop chain Dylan’s Candy Bar. The Chinatown location is the company’s 46th store and the first in the Washington area.

“We’ve been looking for a long time to be in D.C.,” said Rubin, 49. “Chinatown, in particular, is an action-packed area filled with tourists and students — those meandering crowds are great for us.”

When Rubin set out to create It’Sugar in 2006, he said he wanted to build a company that was decidedly different from Dylan’s Candy Bar, which he co-founded with Ralph Lauren’s daughter in 2001.

“After 10 years of creating and marketing candy to overprivileged 8-year-olds, I created It’Sugar for [rebellious] 18-year-olds,” he said.

And it shows.

Dance music blares loudly through the speakers. The walls are covered with Andy Warhol-esque paintings of gummy bears, and items such as bacon-scented lip balm and pickle-flavored gumballs line the shelves alongside traditional jelly beans and chocolate-covered almonds. In recent years, the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based company has partnered with tennis player Maria Sharapova, Seventeen magazine and Marilyn Monroe’s estate to create proprietary products.

But perhaps the company’s biggest selling point is its line of mega-size candy: The “world’s largest Sweetarts” (2 feet long), 8-foot gummy pythons ($149.95) and 2-pound Rice Krispies Treats ($22.99).

Those items, store manager Ursula Ware said, are like magnets.

“Those big products, that’s what brings the customers in,” Ware said.

Case in point: Sabina Vazquez, who wandered in one day after work last week, lured by a 1.5-pound box of Nerds.

“I saw that big box and I was hypnotized by it,” said Vazquez, who works at a nearby law firm. “I could spend an entire day in here looking at this stuff.”

From Detroit to NYC

Rubin, who spent his early years working at his family’s candy shop in Detroit, was visiting New York City with his young sons in 1994 when he got the idea for FAO Schweetz.

“It was like a light bulb went off in my head,” he said.

Rubin called up the company’s executives and asked for a meeting.

“It took me three months to get a call back, but once I made my pitch, we were off to the races,” Rubin said. “Just like that, I went from a small-town family business to 5th Avenue.”

Today, he credits FAO Schwarz for giving him a crash course in merchandising. His time at Dylan’s, he says, taught him how to market an idea.

At It’Sugar, he’s merged those two lessons.

Take, for example, candy displays. Products are grouped together by theme, and there are mini displays — of, say, Batman glassware or retro candy from the 1950s and 1960s — throughout the store. Nerds-filled headphones are arranged alongside Nerds-flavored lip balm and Nerds-scented nail polish. For die-hard fans, Nerds-shaped pillows and plush toys are in close proximity.

“At FAO Schwarz, they do a great job of displaying their products,” Rubin said. “No matter what it is, they make it look special. I wanted to have that same vibe — but in a playful way.”

There have been challenges — and fad diets — throughout the years. Rubin says he’s fought back with humor.

Chocolate bars at the 1,688-square-foot Chinatown store are covered with wrappers that say “100% gluten,” “High cholesterol” and “Non-organic.”

“We poke fun at all the rules,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Come on, what’s wrong with treating yourself every now and then?’ ”

It seems to be working.

The number of It’Sugar stores has nearly doubled every year for the past few years. Annual revenue is on track to grow 50 percent in 2013 to total more than $60 million, Rubin said.

“As a lifelong candy man, I’ve never met anyone who says, ‘I really don’t like the taste of candy,’ ” he said. “There’s no question that everyone loves it. We just have to get them to admit it.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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