Aunt Nina’s Sweets ‘n’ Treats sits in a 7,000-sq.-ft. shop that’s off the beaten path.
Taking up a majority of a strip mall that looks like it was built in anticipation of suburban developments that never quite materialized after the 2008 crash, it’s easy to miss if you’re just driving along the main road.
But that hasn’t stopped its owners, Christina Newcomb and Michael Tessone, from getting the word out.
First, they start with a classic marketing technique — free samples. Every single Sunday they give out free chocolate-covered strawberries to all their customers.
Then, they add in a little hard work, setting up signs on all the main street corners in the areas for miles around, alerting people to this fact and pointing potential customers to their shop.
|Michael Tessone creates homemade chocolates, such as chocolate-covered strawberries.|
In the first week, the strategy quadrupled their Sunday business.
“We couldn’t even imagine how busy we would be,” Tessone says.
Of course, their marketing efforts don’t end there. On hot summer days, they hand out bottled waters and coupons. They also host children’s parties in the shop, whereby kids each earn coupons they can spend on candy in the store, which then usually translates into the parents spending more money on treats within the shop.
Newcomb and Tessone also do events all over the southern Chicago suburban area, setting up shop at schools, churches, nursing homes and anywhere else that will have them selling and sampling their items for events and parties.
“If you get it in their mouth, they will like it and they will come back.” Newcomb says. “We give a little to get a lot.”
The tactics seem to be working. Last year, sales were about $400,000 and their goal this year is to break $500,000. Even though they have 12 part-time employees, it’s hard to keep the shelves stocked.
Part of Sweet ‘n’ Treats’ success stems from the fact that it’s really a compilation of five different shops in one — a candy store, a chocolate shop, a bakery, an ice cream parlor and a popcorn store. And, in the back, there’s a party room.
“The hook is how big we are,” Newcomb says.
Newcomb opened Sweets N’ Treats four years ago in another location. Back then, the store was just 2,000 sq. feet. They’ve since moved to their 7,000-sq.-ft. space that’s more centrally located among the southern Chicago suburbs.
The setup is like five stores sprawled out like individual sugar pearls..
First, there’s the Hershey’s ice cream parlor, featuring cozy tables, enticing stacks of board games that allow customers to linger and flavors like cotton candy, candy bar overload and red velvet cake.
Then, off to the side, is the display of bakery treats supplied by Lezza's Bakery. Customers can can choose from cannolis, coconut macaroons and chewy Amaretti as they order their coffee in the shop.
“They’ll come just to hang out; it’s kind of a gathering spot,” says. “The goal is to get them in the next room.”
|With ice cream, bakery, groumet popcorn, chocolates and candy, Sweets 'n' Treats is five shops in one.|
And the next room is pretty sweet. It starts with a wall filled with tubes of 50 gourmet popcorn flavors. Originally, Tessone, wanted to just do five basic flavors and one rotating flavor, but his imagination in the kitchen has let to the creation of 70 rotating flavors. There are more traditional flavors, such as cheddar and caramel. And then there’s the more unexpected popcorn flavors, such as: birthday cake, bacon-BBQ-cheddar, dill pickle, chocolate-covered strawberry, garlic Parmesan, jalapeno, chipotle, and flaming cheddar.
The bacon-BBQ-cheddar is their best seller, which Tessone says he created out of frustration. A BBQ-cheddar variety wasn’t selling, and a bacon-variety wasn’t selling, so he decided to combine the two.
After the popcorn shop, there’s the display case featuring hand-made chocolates all created and made from scratch by Tessone in the kitchen in the back.
His specialty is the Pecan Charlie, which is named after his beloved beagle and is similar to a Turtle. It features homemade caramel and slightly salted pecans covered in a Swiss coverture chocolate. There’s also an English Toffee, which features a buttery richness that Tessone guarantees customers will not stick to their teeth.
Of course, what’s a chocolate collection without gourmet truffles? Sweets ‘N Treats offers more than 24 flavors, all made from fresh fruits and spices surrounded by a crisp Swiss chocolate shell. They also have marshmallows, chocolate-covered cherries, and giant peanut butter cups made from scratch, as well 15 flavors of fudge, and hand-dipped pretzels made with Swiss chocolate.
They can also do customized chocolates, offer moulded chocolates for the various holidays, and can make memorable wedding favors and tasty party treats.
After the chocolate shop, there’s the candy store. The shop features bin after bin of bulk candy, such as the more than 50 flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, and all 21 colors of M&M'S Colorworks.
There’s also 12 flavors of gummy bears, an entire aisle of gumballs, and a back wall filled exclusively with salt water taffy. The also have grape, peach, and blue raspberry twists of licorice; jumbo chocolate-covered raisins; and a nostalgic selection featuring classic items like Skybars, Mallowcups, candydots and wax bottles.
“It blows their mind to see how many of everything we have,” Newcomb says.
As is often the case in the confectionery industry, neither Newcomb or Tessone ever intended to be in the candy store business. Newcomb’s first career was as an English teacher. However, she has lupus, and at 25 years old, had to retire.
“That’s a long time with nothing to do,” she explains.
After spending some time with her young nephew who calls her “Aunt Nina”, she started brainstorming ideas for what to do to. He suggested opening a candy store, and she took the idea seriously.
Next thing she knew Newcomb had a 2,000-sq.-ft. store in Shorewood, Ill.
She stocked as much as she could of every line she could find, and tried to incorporate aspects of her teaching career that she missed, such as the classroom parties. Offering a space for birthday parties was a top priority, and of course, that meant finding a local pizza place to work with for the events.
It just so happened that Tessone was the owner of a nearby pizza place — Chicago Joe’s Pizza in Crest Hill . He started in the pizza industry at just 14 years old, and when Newcomb found him, she discovered that he had won Best Pizza in the Joliet area four years in a row.
“She spent a lot of time in the pizza place,” he recalls with a smile.
|Owners Michael Tessone (left) and Christina Newcomb never imagined how busy their sweet shop would be.|
It wasn’t long before cupid’s arrow struck them both, and the two fell in love and decided to get married.
At that point though, they decided they need to choose between the candy store and the pizza place, and the candy store won. They’ve been putting all their efforts into Aunt Nina’s ever since.
They claim they don’t get overwhelmed with all they time they spend with each other by both working and living together.
“If she’s not here, I miss her so much. I can’t wait to get home to her,” Tessone gushes. “I cannot ask for a better partner in business or in life.”
The only problem with the decision to go all in at the candy store is that Tessone’s background was in making pizzas. A hard worker who’s seriously not afraid to fail, he plunged into figuring out how to make confections from scratch.
“I wanted chocolate-covered strawberries, but I didn’t know anything about tempering,” Tessone recalls. Needless to say, his first batch didn’t turn out very well.
So, he decided to study under Pam Vieu wat Wilton in Woodridge, Ill. He also read every recipe book he could get his hands on, and kept tweaking various recipes until he got creations he loved himself.
“He masters one area, and he goes on to the next,” Newcomb says.
Today, his collection of gourmet chocolates sell for $24.99 a pound, and Tessone literally cannot make enough to keep up with demand.
Their next goal is to remodel the kitchen area so that there’s a large window for customers to peak through and watch Tessone work on his delicious creations. He’s also thinking of branching out into homemade cupcakes, partly because he just can’t seem to resist the challenge.
He and his wife both seem to truly find joy in an industry that they claim can turn anybody into a kid — even one of their regular customers, an 80-year-old man named Howard.
And as they effortlessly share that joy (and the free chocolate-covered strawberries) with those around them, there’s no doubt they’ll keep customers coming back to Aunt Nina’s Sweets ‘n’ Treats.