As a child, Dylan Lauren fell in love with Willy Wonka -- and she's been a self-described "candy freak" ever since. She majored in art history at Duke University and spent a semester abroad scouring Europe for treats. The recon paid off. In 2001, she opened Dylan's Candy Bar in New York, a literal candy land offering everything from Red Hots to fresh fudge to Pixy Stix, and even a few nostalgic candies like Mary Janes and Necco Wafers.
The store's offerings have expanded far beyond candy -- Lauren has established a lifestyle brand and offers candy-themed T-shirts, jewelry, hats, totes, gift baskets, pillows, spa products like birthday cake-scented body wash and even a Dylan's Candy Bar version of the classic board game Candy Land. Lauren is also now an author, thanks to her new book, Unwrap Your Sweet Life, which encourages readers to celebrate special occasions with candy.
But despite a solid entrepreneurial pedigree -- her father is fashion icon Ralph Lauren -- success didn't just happen overnight. From the get-go, Lauren was determined to build the world's largest candy store, and she's filled it up with something for nearly everyone's inner "candy freak." Here, the newest member of the AOL Small Business Board of Directors discusses how she made Dylan's Candy Bar one of Manhattan's most-frequented tourist destinations.
"My whole life, I've been a candy girl. I've eaten candy since I was a little girl, and as I got older, I started discovering candies from all over the world. I love the packaging and the shapes and the colors and textures, and I started collecting it more to look at it. I had them on my shelves, and I made a lot of art with candy. Then it evolved into a retail store, and we wanted it to be the world's largest candy store.
"I definitely love art. My whole family is artistic. My dad's a designer, my brother's a filmmaker, my grandfather was a painter, so art is in my blood. I did a lot of art with candy as gifts for people -- mosaics with gumballs or collages with candy wrappers. And it evolved into, 'Maybe I'll do an art gallery using different candy pop artists and I'll show my own, too,' and then it evolved into, 'I'll design a candy store with some candy fixtures and sculptures and sell candy that looks artistic, like chocolate sculptures from Italy and beautiful packaging from Japan.' We wanted to be an entertainment destination that merges fashion, art and pop culture. We have candy gowns that the fashion people come to see, and we've had pop artists like Burton Morris do candy art in the vein of Andy Warhol. It's not just a candy store for little kids. It's like a gallery. There's something for everyone, which contributes to the brand's success. It's all part of the mission, and it all just evolved.
"In 1999, I thought, I'd love to have a space where I can throw events and parties and candy-themed art, but also sell candy. Selling the candy was actually the last part of the concept to me. I just wanted to show the beauty of it. I'd always wanted to call it Candy Land. 'Candy Land' has 'Dylan' in it, and I thought that was fate, but the rights to 'Candy Land' are owned by Hasbro, so the next idea was Dylan's Candy Bar. We have a liquor license, so it's a bar, and it's also like a chocolate bar. And putting my name on the door makes it more personal and homey, like 'John's Pizza,' even though it's a huge store. But it also makes me feel pressure to be successful.
"We opened our flagship store in New York in 2001. Opening day was amazing. I think people felt like it was a very happy haven in New York, especially since we opened a month after 9/11. People just love it, and it's become a tourist destination. Now I have stores now in Houston, Orlando, East Hampton and Roosevelt Field, and we have wholesale shops in Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's.
"When I first told people I was going to open a 15,000-square-foot candy store, they said, 'How are you going to fill that up?' So I had to think about how to pay rent for three stories in New York City. I wanted have a place for licorice limbo and bubble gum blowing contests, and I've always been a collector of candy tees, candy jewelry, candy-scented spa products, so having a lifestyle brand was always part of the goal, but developing the Dylan's Candy Bar twist on things evolved as we became known as a private label. The Dylan's Candy Bar line of products has actually become our bestseller -- people want to take home a piece of the store experience. We really pride ourselves on the packaging and the colors we use, so it's become a gift item, and it's been doing well for us.
"Despite the recession, candy is and I think always will be the best affordable luxury. There's the really fancy chocolate and then there's the jelly bean. You can find something for everyone, whether it's a guy on Wall Street or a stay-at-home mom. It can be as big or small as you want. You can even package something for a wedding!
"There are a few entrepreneurs whom I look up to. My dad, Ralph Lauren, has definitely evolved into a lifestyle brand of clothing and home furnishings. Oprah Winfrey is such an inspiring person. Martha Stewart and her creative vision. I love Janet Jackson and her creative set design. Walt Disney!
"It maybe sounds bad, but I always felt this place would be successful. But success to me wasn't always about sales numbers. It was about people loving their experience. Obviously we have to do well, and I think believing in it will make it more successful financially. I don't really look at the numbers. I obviously worry about it, but that'll kill me if I focus on the bottom line every month and don't enjoy the creative process. Some people look at the numbers so intensely and lose their drive and end up failing. I obviously am very driven, and I will not let it fail -- my name's on the door! -- and I have a lot to live up to. To focus on this million or the next million would drive me crazy!
"I feel like I filled a niche for myself as a candy freak, trying to find candies all around the world that I couldn't find. And I hire people who love candy -- we want people who make our customers feel good. I know there are a lot of people out there like me in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 80s, who couldn't find the candy they grew up with, or traveled to Europe and saw something -- and then we have it! It's like a goldmine when they see it here. And that's why we're here."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 11/15/10.