Jeff Rubin is a man who has lived his life in sugar, from founding the fast-growing It’Sugar sweet shop, co-founding Dylan’s Candy Store in New York (the pet project of Ralph Lauren’s daughter Dylan) and FAO Schweetz at the legendary NYC toy store. But don’t expect a ridiculously exuberant Willy Wonka type -- Rubin is the modern face of candy: a world of exclusives, celebrity tie-ups and getting serious about the business of fun.
“We’re a hip, cool, trendy brand that’s very, very popular in the US and growing quickly,” he told me last week at the shop in Mall of the Emirates, which this month celebrates its one-year anniversary. “More so than a carnival type of store – the It’Sugar girl is above that,” he says, when asked what distinguishes his chain from the other big sweet shops in town, such as Candylicious at Dubai Mall and Candelite in Mirdif City Centre.
Candy has been recession-proof: since Rubin started in 2005, there have been 40 openings in the US as we as stores in Dubai and the UK. “I like to say it’s been a great recession and very profitable. It doesn’t matter what the economy is, it’s a feel good product, it attached to the emotions of when you were a child and never leaves you. People continue to find a place in their wallet for candy.”
The secret of his success, he says, lies in the exclusive offerings in the shop, which doesn’t just sell piles and piles of sweets (although there’s a lot of them too). He points to a washing-powder-sized box of Nerds, the tiny sour pebble candy sold under the Wonka brand.
“We have a lot of exclusives and unique products. One of them that we developed with Nestle is a world associated to Nerds. We like to think there’s a nerd in all of us and we are big, big nerds, so we developed the world’s largest Nerds box.”
It’Sugar is also home to the world’s largest box of Gobstoppers and the world’s largest box of Sweet Tarts.
“We sell a whole range of Nerd-related products -- headphones and mugs to boxers and we’ve got a lot more of these coming. I’ve got to keep it a secret right now, but there are a lot of fun developments on the way.”
One of the unique developments that we can talk about is Rubin’s unusual collaboration with tennis star Maria Sharapova, who in August launched her own range of sweets in partnership with It’Sugar (Rubin expects it to arrive in UAE outlets by the end of the year).
“She’s really excited to launch it here,” said Rubin, who chuckles when I ask if it’s not strange for an athlete to have a line of sweets.
“We approached her with the idea because no athlete had ever endorsed an all-out sugar product. And she said, ‘you know what, I have the biggest sweet tooth, it’s what I like to eat, and why not have my own candy line with you?’
“Candy is trendy, very fashionable, we tried to convey that fashion here in It’Sugar. That’s why I think people like Maria wanted to partner with us -- that’s where she would want it to live.”
Checking the website for Sharapova’s range, called Sugarpova, the $5.99 bags of her Smitten Sour rainbow chews were sold out. That’s not unusual, apparently. “We sold out of nearly 12,000 bags over a 48 hour period. It was crazy,” said Rubin of the August launch of the range, which is described as “premium”. What makes the Flirty gummy lips and Sporty lime gumballs premium?
“The quality and the taste. The tennis gumballs for example: you will get tired of chewing them before the flavour runs out. She wanted one that would last three sets – it was not easy, trust me. She tested it.”
If you’re searching for the next big candy trend, you’re looking right at it. Celebrity collaborations are the way forward in sweets, and Rubin says the store has a number in the works that he can’t disclose, although he hinted the next tie-up would be with an artist. Wouldn’t Nicki Minaj be just perfect?
Jeff Rubin’s sweet tooth
What does the founder of It’Sugar pick? “I’m a gummy person – I love gummy bears. I love toasted marshmallow, buttered popcorn and very cherry Jelly Belly. One of the beauties is if you ask 100 people what their favourite candy is, you’ll probably get 100 different answers.”