There’s nothing humorous about the number of consumers, especially children, with food allergies. But NaturalCandyStore.com gives shoppers reason to smile with its sweet selection of confections that are free from allergens and artificial ingredients.




The Surf Sweets brand is a best-seller at NaturalCandyStore.com.

By Deborah Cassell

Organically sweetened gummy worms, dairy-free chocolate bars, vegan marshmallows, gluten-free jelly beans and all-natural hard candies make their home sweet home at NaturalCandyStore.com, which promises “Absolutely NO artificial colors or dyes, NO artificial flavors, NO artificial sweeteners, NO preservatives, NO hydrogenated oils!” Kosher, Fair Trade and American-made confections also share virtual shelf space on the thorough site, which launched three years ago.

For consumers who suffer from food allergies, are on restricted medical diets, crave healthy options or seek certified sweets, the URL is a welcome destination. For some, it means salvation from the artificial additives and common food allergens that make certain products off-limits. At NaturalCandyStore.com, visitors can choose from more than 300 SKUs of candy (many available in multiple pack sizes) to meet their diverse dietary demands.

“For the same reasons consumers want healthier, natural options across all food categories - the health and well-being of their families, environmental considerations, concerns about chemical contaminants in the food supply - our customers seek out natural candy,” says Co-founder & CEO Dawn Van Hee, describing NaturalCandyStore.com’s target audience.

Specifically, the typical customer is a mother (or grandmother) buying for their kids, she explains, “but we also have many adults buying for themselves and other adults.”

Shoppers hail from all 50 states, plus Canada and some miscellaneous countries, with most coming from the denser populated areas of the nation.

“However, we also serve many rural customers who have an even harder time finding natural candy in local stores than urban folks,” Van Hee points out.

She further notes that the increasing incidence of conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism bring additional consumers to NaturalCandyStore.com.

“Many parents find that a diet free of artificial ingredients reduces symptoms, with some research suggesting artificial colors and preservatives do indeed increase hyperactivity in children,” Van Hee says. “Since almost all candy contains artificial colors and flavors, parents are searching for alternatives. Enjoying a piece of candy is such a basic childhood pleasure, and the last thing parents want is to deprive their kids, especially during the holidays and other celebrations.

“Our customers have a variety of lifestyle and dietary needs - natural, organic, vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free, corn syrup-free, kosher, food dye sensitivities, fair-trade, GMO-free, etc. - but what they all have in common is they pay very close attention to the ingredients in the foods they and their families eat,” she summarizes.




Natural Navigation Guide

NaturalCandyStore.com makes arriving at the right product for the respective nutritional need easy through a color-coded key of symbols that spell out if a candy is made in the USA, organic, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, Feingold Stage 1 or 2 (for more information, visit www.feingold.org) or allergen-free, among other claims. Visitors can shop via the following categories: All Candy, Organic Candy, Special Diets, Gourmet Candy, Gift, Bulk, Brands, Fair Trade Candy, Made in the USA Candy, Flavors, Colors, Best Sellers and New Items.

Of these options, “It’s hard to say which is the most popular,” Van Hee says. “Since most candies fall under multiple categories, it is not always clear what a customer’s primary concern is. One customer may require organic and vegan and peanut-free, while another buys vegan and corn syrup-free. It gets complicated! We do know that we have many organic customers, allergen-free customers (including nut-free), vegan customers and gluten-free customers.”

“A more recent trend we are seeing is for soy-free,” she adds. These trends are constantly evolving. As long as we provide thorough ingredient information, we hope our customers can always find something that works for their particular situation.”

In addition, “There’s a lot of cross-over between ‘natural’ and ‘gourmet’ these days,” Van Hee notes. “It’s a judgment call, but in general by gourmet we’re talking about more ‘grown-up’ candies. They have more sophisticated flavor profiles. There’s probably less emphasis on dietary restrictions, and more focus on the purity and high quality of the ingredients. We do have many adult customers who gravitate to the more gourmet offerings.”

Although there is interest in made in America, “I don’t think it’s a primary driver,” Van Hee says. “Still, our customers do care about country of origin. Made in the USA is reassuring to consumers, and it’s simply easier for us to do our research and due diligence on American products.”

That said, Natural Candy Store also carries a few European brands and expects to carry more in the future.




No Funny Feedback

Proof of what consumers want can be found right at NaturalCandyStore.com, where shoppers regularly post reviews of products such as Surf Sweets Organic Jelly Beans and Gummies, best-sellers on the site. (Other top performers include Pure Fun Organic Fruit Lollipops Mix, Dandies Vegan Marshmallows, Organic Root Beer Barrels, Carnival Sprinkelz and Raspberry Red Licorice Hearts.)

“The Surf Sweets line of gummies (available in eight SKUs) is one of our best-selling brands,” Van Hee says. “They are consistently high quality, in terms of taste and visual appeal. They also meet many of the major special dietary needs, including allergy-friendly, gluten-free, corn syrup-free and GMO-free. There are organic and vegan options, plus they contain Vitamin C. This makes them appropriate for a wide variety of different consumers.”

One such customer is April from Nevada, who reviewed Surf Sweets brand jelly beans online: “One of my children is intolerant to corn syrup. I was delighted to find these just in time for Easter last year.”

Meanwhile, Carolyn from Michigan offers a testimonial for Surf Sweets Natural Gummy Worms: “My daughter has celiac and needs to eat gluten-free. She also has a Red 40 dye allergy. We were so happy to find these gummy worms that were gluten-free and had no food coloring. They taste great.”

boom CHOCO boom Dairy Free Rice Milk Bar from Enjoy Life Foods garnered this recommendation from Lindsay of California: “My four-year-old is on a special diet. Poor thing used to love chocolate, but she had stomach issues. Now she is GFCFSF (gluten-free, casein-free and soy-free.) I was SO happy after finding these here. She deserves a yummy chocolate treat sometimes. Tastes like a milk chocolate bar … just without the tummy ache.”

But food allergies aren’t the only reasons shoppers turn to the Web site. Certain consumers just want to eat better.

“Since we are a vegetarian family, it was nice to find a marshmallow that has no gelatin,” writes Frances from California about Dandies Air-Puffed Marshmallows. “These melt very good, taste great and do roast well, too.”

Some adult shoppers even fess up to hoarding healthy products meant for their kids.

“This is the best hard candy I have ever had the pleasure of eating!” writes J. Jones of Indiana about The Apothecary’s Garden Cinnamon & Clove Natural Herbal Candies. “I hid it from the kids and saved it for my own personal treat.”

Feedback both on and offline is proof positive that NaturalCandyStore.com is accomplishing what it set out to do.

“We receive the most heart-warming notes from customers discovering us for the first time,” Van Hee says. “They are so thrilled that we exist, they sometimes write before they even receive their first order.

“Many times it is a parent so happy they can finally provide their child with candy at Christmas or Easter so they can feel like a normal kid,” she continues. “We also hear from adults. For example, a lady who hadn’t eaten any red candy in 30 years because of dye sensitivity … She was so excited.”




Brand Building

The number of manufacturers offering innovations that fit the bill of goods NaturalCandyStore.com is selling has grown considerably in recent years. The ones it has worked with the longest are Surf Sweets, Bequet Caramels, Sweet Botanicals and Sunspire.

Other brands carried by the e-tailer include AllergyCare, Burnt Sugar, Cedrinca, Chicago SoyDairy, Crispy Cat, Divine Chocolate, Glee Gum, Gimme, Honey Acres, India Tree, Hammond’s Candies, Natural Nectar, Q.bel, SunRidge Farms, The Ginger People, Vermints, Wolfgang, Toonie Moonie Organics, Sweet Botanicals, Let’s Do Organic and Butternut Mountain Farms.

However, the site always is open to bringing on new brands, categories and companies, and stocks new products on a frequent, ad-hoc basis, Van Hee notes. Among the recent entries are All-Natural NECCO Wafers, Sunbursts Natural Candy Coated Sunflower Seeds from Kimmie Candy, All Natural Pecan Divinity from Dillon’s Candy, Organic Soft Licorice Rope from Tubi’s and All-Natural Flower Mallows from The Gourmet Candy Co.

Upcoming additions include Peach Sour Power Belts, says Van Hee, adding that “we have many, many more new items in the pipeline for this summer and fall.”

Unlike traditional retailers with limited shelf space and national brand demands, the possibilities are endless for NaturalCandyStore.com, making it a unique vehicle for reaching customers across the country.

“Online retailing is ideal for niche businesses like ours,” Van Hee asserts. “It allows us to reach a much larger audience of target customers. We’ve watched the natural candy category grow tremendously over the past few years, yet the majority of these products do not have extensive distribution in the mass or even specialty bricks and mortar channels. That means most consumers do not have access to this exciting new product category in their local stores and certainly not to the comprehensive assortment we are able to provide. ... we felt there needed to be a place where consumers could find and purchase them all in one place.

“There are hundreds of categories, and the number is always changing,” she adds.




Ample Samples

In an effort to expose visitors to the growing number of new product offerings available, NaturalCandyStore.com provides free samples at the point of purchase.

“Every order gets to choose one to four samples, depending on the size of the order,” Van Hee explains. “Since many of our customers have special dietary needs, it’s important that they can choose their own samples so they don’t receive a candy that they can’t eat or even find offensive. In most cases, the sample is a piece of wrapped candy or a single-serve bag.

“We encourage suppliers to participate in our sampling program, especially for new products,” she continues. “It’s a great way to reach the natural candy consumer.”

Current options include Maple Syrup Hard Candy, Italian Honey Filled Candy, Lemon Organic Lollipops from Pure Fun, Frizy Fizzy Candy, Angel Mints and 55% Dark Chocolate Bites from Equal Exchange.
The company also runs the occasional sale, coupon code or free gift offer.

Upcoming offerings are two-fold. One is a refer-a-friend program that will earn participants gift certificates good for candy ($5 per resulting order) when they spread the word to friends and family. The second is a fundraiser for non-profits that will allow organizations to apply online and be approved for a 7-day period, during which they will receive a percentage of all sales placed though a special link.

“We’re still experimenting with promotions,” Van Hee says.




Future Fun

Moving forward, NaturalCandyStore.com intends to experiment and expand even more.

For example, it plans to increase its bulk candy selection for buyers of product for events, institutions and businesses as well as those stocking up for home use, Van Hee says.

Ultimately, “Our goal is to offer a huge assortment of great-tasting, good-looking, fun, all-natural candy along with as much information as possible about the products we carry so our customers can decide for themselves which candies meet their particular dietary needs/preferences,” she asserts.

To date, consumers have found NaturalCandyStore.com through online searches, word-of-mouth and media mentions. The site has done very little advertising either online or in print, but efforts to increase both strategies as well as delve into social media marketing are in the works.

Since creating NaturalCandyStore.com, “We have become more focused,” Van Hee reflects. “Our original business concept, which took shape in 2005, involved a larger assortment of high-quality, ingredient-focused sweets, including super-premium gourmet confections from around the world, and specialty sweeteners such as varietal honeys. In October 2007, we launched the site NaturalCandyStore.com as a spinoff from our original site and, in 2009, decided to focus on the natural candy category exclusively.

“As the category matures,” she concludes, “we’ll continue to focus on offering the best and most complete assortment of natural candies available.”

Or, as the company’s tagline asserts, “All the FUN without the FUNNY stuff!”




Three Women on a Mission

America encourages the entrepreneurial spirit of family-owned businesses, including confectionery manufacturers and retailers. Today’s familial startups even live online, as illustrated by
NaturalCandyStore.com.

The site was created by Co-founder & CFO Molly Hamaker and her daughters, Co-founder & CEO Dawn Van Hee and Co-founder and COO Irene Nelson.

“My mom and I wanted to start our own business and hit upon the idea of a candy store for people like us - people who pay a lot of attention to the ingredients in the products they buy,” Van Hee describes. “As consumers ourselves, we are serious label-readers and have always followed a more natural kind of lifestyle.”

In addition, Van Hee brought with her a decade’s worth of experience in the packaged foods industry. Hamaker had food industry experience, too, having founded and managed a natural foods store in the ‘70s, among other jobs. Meanwhile, Nelson has a degree in art, which prepared her to do all the company’s illustrations and Web design.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to eat candy because of the refined sugar and artificial ingredients,” Van Hee recalls, adding that her sister grew up “with the same natural foods fanatic mom that I did, about 15 years later.

“We like to think that if Natural Candy Store had existed back then, my mom would have been our best customer, and I would have been one happy kid,” Van Hee sums up.