A Morning With Joni Wheeler of Sugar Sugar Candy
Many shops are designed to make you want to spend your money, but it is a rare and delicious few that inspire a truly covetous feeling — the kind that extends beyond the goods for sale to the very displays that hold them.
On a recent Saturday morning, we visited Joni Wheeler’s new candy shop, Sugar Sugar Candy, in Kingfield. There we discovered not only a thrilling selection of sweets, but also an uncommonly well-appointed space, tiny but aesthetically calculated to delight the eye wherever it should land.
Overhead, ambient sunlight illuminates the crinkled pastel layers of a hundred or so cupcake liners ingeniously strung together and hung in loops from a Japanese parasol. Beneath it, a bell jar inhabited by one exquisite business card… Yes, I’ll take six mint malt balls and that wooden Indian head with the lollipop headdress please!
Shop owner Joni Wheeler says Sugar Sugar is the near-perfect expression of all her interests. Having worked at Paper Source for 11 years, she has a strong affinity for paper and packaging. In her personal life, she has collected vintage candy boxes and displays for years and is an avid Francophile who has made a study of French history and acquired a stack of French memoirs from 1640 to post-Napoleon. “I’m interested in candy, I love candy, but I think one of the things I love most about it is its look,” she says. “The French aesthetic is genius, but I lived in Japan for a year, so I love that harder, pop edge too. When I first began to describe this place to myself, it was going to be French Regency meets pop Japanese. Somehow, it all came together. It isn’t as edgy as I originally intended, but I’m not quite as edgy either!”
A true collector and a generous storyteller, Wheeler earnestly recites the provenance of every curiosity in the shop: That old candy jar was a Christmas gift from a good friend, the proprietress of Duetta — “She has such an eye!” — and came filled with lemon-colored vintage ribbons; this Indian head has been in her husband’s family since the 1930s and he was using it as a doorstop when they first met, 28 years ago.
“My husband accused me of opening the store just to house my collection, which was outgrowing our little bungalow,” Wheeler says. “He works for Cheapo, so he has thousands of records and CDs, and we vie for space. He’s winning, so I did have to find someplace!”
In addition to the found objects, the store is filled with paper wreaths, poppers, candy cones, decorative wax envelopes — a tiny matchbox covered in flowered paper, trimmed with ribbons, and filled with conversation hearts! — most of which were constructed either by Wheeler or by crafty friends with a similar aesthetic and joie de vivre.
“I used to teach gift wrapping at Paper Source,” Wheeler says. “For me, it goes beyond picking a color theme. Paper and things like that talk to me, they tell me a story, and I just try to tell that same story in the things I create, as cheesy as that may sound.”
Despite her husband’s teasing assertions, Wheeler’s decision to open the shop was not entirely aesthetic. “I was wavering about what I was going to do — after working at Paper Source, which had a very unique corporate culture, I just didn’t think that I could embrace someone else’s,” she says of the decision to go out on her own. “I’m not the kind of person that goes to work for eight hours and then walks away; I only know how to live what I do.”
Wheeler was nudged into moving ahead with the candy shop by friends — who presented her with an antique candy display, a perfectly aimed shot of inspiration — and Steve Almond’s book Candy Freak, which documents the author’s journey to several small American candy companies. “I read this book and I felt his nostalgia for all the candy you can’t get any more, all the mom-and-pop places that couldn’t pay slotting fees, and I thought, ‘That’s a noble thing to continue to make candy on a smaller scale and pursue what you want to do.’”
Before opening Sugar Sugar, Wheeler emailed the author and told him how much his book had influenced her to move ahead with the project. He wrote a one-line reply: “Freak on, tiny dancer!”
Sugar Sugar is a layering of stories. Nearly every candy in the shop comes with one — from the bulk organic gummy bears to the locally made orange slices to the retro candies like Chick-O-Stick and Sifers Valomilk — as do the people who come, their own sentimentality in hand, to buy them.
Paula Kerman, visiting from Des Moines, IA, wandered in with her daughters and stopped in front of the counter, pointing up at the jars. “I had all this candy when I was a kid,” she said. “Bassett’s Allsorts! I used to walk up to the penny store and pick out candies. Those licorice wheels were my favorite; they came with a yellow hard candy in the center.”
Although she and her daughters agreed that her husband didn’t really care for sweets, Kerman bought the wheels, a few licorice beagles, and a handful of licorice caramels to take home to him, purely for memory’s sake. Wheeler weighed them in a cellophane bag, tied them up with a bit of striped string, and snipped off the string with pinking shears, a simple but sweetly pleasing presentation.
Why is candy so incredibly nostalgic? “I wish I knew,” says Wheeler. “People have cried, laughed, told me stories about their families. I think candy memories are usually happy, and we have a tendency to remember those moments.”
Childhood candy memories are also about independence — picking out a few pieces of candy and buying it with one’s own money. “I do have parents who say, ‘No, you don’t need that.’” Wheeler says, “but by and large, the kids get what they want and it’s nice. They’re in charge. One little girl takes half an hour to pick out her candy. She agonizes and asks me, ‘How much is 50 cents of this?’ But when she leaves she’s happy and had her fun and, yes, it’s that first sense of empowerment.”
Among children, sour gummy worms are a favorite; Wheeler has sold 150 pounds of them in three months. Adults are similarly consistent; although they may develop a temporary fascination with absinthe cordials, they always seem to return to the two shelves she has stocked with various sweet and savory licorices. “People come in like it’s bootleg whisky: ‘I hear you have licorice!’” she laughs. “In the weekend before Christmas I went through somewhere between 70 and 90 pounds of licorice, everything from salt coins to anise bears.”
Perhaps more surprising, she has sold cases of Fritzie Fresh orange slices, the kind that are bright orange and coated with sugar. “Everybody is like, ‘My grandmother loves orange slices, My grandfather loves orange slices,’” Wheeler laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I like orange slices and I’m not old enough to be your grandmother!’”
In the morning we spent at the store, quite a few people came in looking for chocolate. At one point, five young men wandered down from the Cuban restaurant on the corner. In knit caps, skinny jeans, pointy shoes, and tailored wool coats, they looked like a cross between a 1960s British rock band and a herd of young Hemingways. Yet they cooed over the décor — “Your store is adorable” — and applied themselves to perusing the chocolate bars with some seriousness.
Wheeler, who spends substantial amounts of time digging up background on her products, regaled them with intricate tales of Colin Gasko’s bean-to-bar production and Fine & Raw’s low-heat, high-antioxidant artisan bars. Her manner was easy and engaging, and they responded in kind, asking questions, sampling, and generally showing the keen interest and foodie knowledge not uncommon among her customers.
“I beg people, ‘Please send me some history on your company!’” Wheeler says. “In the end, I spend hours on Google searching for information. It takes a lot of time, but I want to be able to say, this is a tiny chocolatier, just one woman San Francisco doing this, this, and this, because I know, if that’s why I want to buy it, that’s why other people want to buy it.”
In the end, the boys bought the more expensive of the chocolates, a $10 Fine & Raw bar flavored with lucuma fruit and vanilla. They seemed very happy about their relatively small purchase, a little giddy in fact, and thanked Wheeler heartily when they left.
And that’s what Wheeler is shooting for — a charming experience and a little joy. “I wanted to create a pretty place where, no matter how much money you had, whether it’s 10 cents or $50, you could find something nice,” she says. “I struggle sometimes with the spiritual aspect of selling, but I do love to see people buy something like candy that makes them happy. Yes, candy is frivolous, the economy is tight and, yes, maybe people shouldn’t pay $20 for candy, but if it makes them happy then I think it’s just as valuable as something else.”
3803 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55409
Owner: Joni Wheeler