From the December 2002 issue of Startups

From chocolate bars and chewy caramels to lollipops and more, an overwhelming assortment of delectables is available to the candy-loving consumer who has a few bucks to spend. Sure, the market is crowded with choices from brands big and small, but that doesn't mean newcomers should give up on finding their sweet spot.

After all, candy enthusiasts Jeff Rubin and Dylan Lauren recently found success with their new business, Dylan's Candy Bar in New York City. As the name suggests, this 10,000-square-foot store sells tasty varieties of candy. It has also become a hip hangout for locals and tourists. But that's not all: It's made candy cool.

Rubin, 38, has always loved candy. As a kid, he would sell Bubble Yum to classmates. Years later, following a career as a broker on Wall Street, the Michigan native went back home to help his family operate a chain of bulk candy stores from 1990 to 1995.

Having obtained some firsthand experience, Rubin set off on his own to launch FAO Schweetz, a candy store located inside FAO Schwarz toy stores. Schweetz was a big hit--accounting for nearly 8 percent of FAO Schwarz's sales--and soon Rubin found himself creating similar candy concepts for Warner Bros., Sony and Toys "R" Us stores.

In 2000, a friend introduced Rubin to someone who shared his passion for candy: Dylan Lauren, now 28, the daughter of fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The two hit it off and decided to start their own candy store--Rubin would use his connections in the candy industry to bring in unique products, and Lauren would use her style and personality to create a fun brand.

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"[When] we met, it was just tremendous. I've never met anybody in my life who was as passionate for candy as I was," Rubin says. In fact, the initial meeting went so well that Lauren suggested she and Rubin have a sit down with her father. "I went in to talk to her father, and he gave me some great advice. He said, 'Jeff, you've created some wonderful things. You created Schweetz for Schwarz, Candy Land for Toys "R" Us, but you haven't really created anything that's yours, that you own. I don't create Bloomingdale's shirts, I create Polo Ralph Lauren to be sold in Bloomingdale's. You need to create your own brand and identity that you can place in these stores and stop creating brands for [other] people.' "

Bearing that advice in mind, Rubin and Lauren set to work, opening their flagship store in October 2001. With its candy decor and candy-themed background music, the store has become a cool place for candy lovers to hang out, shop and snack. But even better, these entrepreneurs found a way to differentiate themselves with a unique selection of candies and related products. "I was able to use all my connections in the business to go after M&Ms/Mars, who created 16 colors of Skittles only available at Dylan's Candy Bar," Rubin explains. "Hershey created 10 colors of Hershey Kisses available only at Dylan's Candy Bar, and Double Bubble created Double Bubble bath soap and shampoo only available at Dylan's Candy Bar. I've been able to do that with so many vendors."

Also for sale: candy jewelry, candy-scented candles and soap, and even corporate gift-baskets. And then there's the T-shirt. "Our T-shirts are our number-one selling item in our store," Rubin says. "It's probably similar to what the Hard Rock Café people experienced. It seems like everybody coming into our store wants to buy a Dylan's Candy Bar T-shirt."

Customers include New Yorkers and tourists of all ages, each spending an average of 34 minutes in the store. A busy day will bring 8,000 customers through the doors. Some even rent out the shop's party room to host--what else?--candy-themed parties.

With their first store planted firmly on the list of things to see in New York City and 2002 sales projected at $5 million, Rubin and Lauren are now looking for new territories to grow their candy empire. Smaller 4,500-square-foot stores in Long Island, New York; Orlando, Florida; and Houston are set to launch next year. The company is also scouting expansive 10,000-square-foot locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

Through the success of Dylan's Candy Bar, Rubin and Lauren have proven that anything can be improved upon--even something as simple as a candy store.