It seems the universe continually has bigger plans for Brandon Hodge’s candy store than Brandon Hodge does.
Case in point: The owner of the Austin, Texas-based Big Top Candy Shop originally intended to only open what he calls a “shoebox” candy store back in 2007. He had just learned that a barber shop adjacent to his toy store, Monkey See, Monkey Do, was closing down and imagined that the little space would be perfect for selling confections.
“I wanted to just create a floor-to-ceiling, 500 sq.-ft. store,” he explains. “The space was just big enough for three barber chairs. I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll let me take over this little space and I can just cram it full of candy and it would bring more people into my toy store.’”
The problem was, the space had been a barber shop, and only a barber shop, since the 1930s and the owners weren’t willing to convert it to anything else. But, the landlords did offer him another empty store in the same strip.
It wasn’t exactly the size of a shoebox though. In fact, at 1,600 sq. ft, it was more like a circus tent.
“Most candy stores you go into are half that size,” Hodge says. “I said, ‘Yes,’ though, not quite sure what I was getting into, and the first seeds of Big Top were planted. “
Fast forward a couple years, after things had settled in, to 2011. Hodge’s business is steady, but not booming, and he’s offered even bigger space. Alas, he turns it down, thumbing his nose at the universe’s plans for the store.
“I thought, ‘No, we’re right where we ought to be. A busy Saturday is nice and brisk, but it’s not crazy.’” he recalls.
Just a few months later though, Big Top was featured on the Food Network’s “A Kid in a Candy Store,” and his business did, in fact, go crazy.
“We could never have predicted it,” Hodge says. “We went from being a popular candy store to being just overwhelmed, with long lines and all those weird growing pains.”
Business is still crazy, but in good way, and Hodge has since changed his stance on the possibility of a larger space or even a second location. Big Top has come a long way since Hodge first started it — back when he had serious doubts about whether he could even fill his current shop solely with candy.
“I thought, ‘There’s not enough candy in these catalogues to fill up this place.’” he says. “I chuckle at that now, because now, it’s like, ‘Where are we going to put this?”
Hodge made a decision early on stay a true candy store, no matter how many square feet he had to fill.
“So many candy stores come and go because they’re afraid to over commit to candy,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to be: Candy, and whatever else I could figure out to fill out the space.”
The shop sometimes processes as much as a ton of candy a week. It’s no wonder, with more than 400 self-service, bulk candy bins (filled with treats like three dozen flavors ofJelly Belly jelly beans and nearly four dozen flavors of taffy) as well as a massive nostalgia confections wall, a huge wall of concession boxed candy, and a British imports section geared toward all the British tourists who seem to find their way to the store.
One type of candy that’s very limited though is his premium selections.
“I learned very early on that you really can’t split the difference in appealing,” Hodge explains. “There are some places that try to do both, the ultra high-end chocolates and the [regular candy]. We do high-end chocolates, but it’s not super high-end.”
However, they do offer some chocolates created in-house, such as chocolate-covered oatmeal cream pies, chocolate-covered potato chips, and a chocolate-covered bacon bar, which he claims he was among the first to offer.
“Bacon was kind of having this weird renaissance and I learned that from my toy store.” Hodge recalls. “[One of my toy makers] did a line of bacon products and they included bacon mints. They smelled like artificial smoke, but they sold like crazy. And it just got to me to thinking. I know at the time there was a Vosge bacon bar, and I thought, ‘That’s great, but that’s not enough.’ I just thought, let’s go balls to the walls with it. And, the double bacon chocolate bar was born.”
When he’s not coming with new recipes, he’s finding packaged candy in much the same way any candy fanatic would — at other stores. Hodge said he hasn’t had much luck at big trade shows, where the well-known brands usually take center stage. So, he goes out of his way to find the unusual wherever he can — even if that means buying it at another candy store.
“I shop. I travel. I buy candy when I travel. I’ll just go out and buy something that catches my eye,” he says.
While it was Hodge’s mission for Big Top to be purely a candy store, he did give a little bit and included a nostalgic soda fountain. But, with strange flavors like cucumber, it fits right in with the circus theme.
Having a soda fountain on site though means more staff. Hodge says that while his toy store has three employees, Big Top has 15, mostly because of the food service that goes into running a soda fountain. He credits the success of the soda fountain to his store’s high level of foot traffic.
The average sale at Big Top is about $5 to $6, and on a Saturday he’ll get thousands of customers, but he’ll often times have hundreds of people coming through the doors on a given day.
That’s a lot of people going through what now seems like a small space for Big Top, so Hodge is seriously looking at other locations. But, he says his business model is so highly dependent on foot traffic that he has yet to find a viable second location.
“I’ll just go and park and just watch people come and go and usually, I’m not impressed with the foot traffic,” he explains.
One place he hasn’t expanded to is the Internet. While you will find a Big Top Candy Shop Facebook page, there’s no official website for the store.
“We’re just old fashioned,” Hodge says. “We’re busy enough, and I’ve never been incredibly attracted to online sales. I worked the festival circuit when I was younger and I will take the brick and mortar any day. There’s just something about unlocking the doors in the morning and locking it up again at night.”
Or, maybe the lack of a virtual presence is because Big Top Candy Shop was actually started by some circus workers who became stranded in Austin, Texas after their train broke down in the 1930s. At least that’s the myth Hodge displays on the walls of the shop, complete with character posters for the various circus performers.
Sticking to the theme has been central to Big Top since the beginning. Before the grand opening, in true circus fashion, Hodge made mysterious announcements about the candy shop.
“We had four months of incredible local buzz, because we had sideshow posters in our windows, and all these hints that there was going to be something amazing behind these doors,” he says. “In the same way that circuses have these advance teams.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter how great an advance team is, particularly if the product doesn’t fulfill even the grandest of promises. Which is why Hodge is so adamant about meeting the customer’s expectations.
“We have to fulfill the promises that we’re giving to the public,” he says.
Every customer is greeted with a truly magical scene. There are sideshow banners, brightly colored signs, what Hodge calls “whore-house lamps” that hang over the bar, and an extreme collection of old circus memorabilia that includes a weird pneumatic clockwork Victorian-era robot guitar, and a huge tuba that’s not just a huge tuba, it also has a bunch of weird pneumatic pumps — all from Hodge’s personal collection.
“You have to start questioning reality. Between the sights, the sounds and the smells, it is as if you have stepped through a very privileged portal,” he says. “It’s very intimate. [Like], ‘Oh My God, I am the first person to ever discover this place. I must tell everybody about it.’”
And people do.
At a Glance
Big Top Candy Shop
Owner: Brandon Hodge
Location: 1706 Congress Ave. S, Austin, Texas 78704
Size: 1,600 sq. ft.
Tag line: The most amazing candy shop the world has ever known!