One-on-One with Sugarfina co-founder Rosie O’Neill
O’Neill reflects on specialty retailer’s success in Hong Kong, future in Asia.
Contributed by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council
When Josh Resnik took his girlfriend Rosie O’Neill on their third date to see “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” they bemoaned the fact that kids seemed to have all the fun when it came to candy.
Inspired, the couple – now husband and wife – decided to launch a candy boutique for grownups with Single Malt Scotch Cordials, Champagne Bears and Chocolate Cigars crafted by artisan candy makers among the upscale, beautifully packaged offerings.
As the United States’ fastest-growing candy brand – it has more than 20 shops in the U.S. and Canada – Sugarfina is now poised to take on Asia, with shops in Japan, Korea, Singapore and the Chinese mainland following the opening of its first Asian boutique at Harbour City in Hong Kong, says co-founder Rosie O’Neill.
Hong Kong Trade Development Council: Why did you decide to set up your first overseas outpost in Hong Kong, and what were some of the challenges in setting up your first shop here?
RO: Many brands select Hong Kong as their first outpost in Asia and for good reason – it truly is a window to the entire continent and a city that welcomes newness and innovation. As Hong Kong was our first overseas boutique, we needed to prepare our organization for a new way of doing business. This meant building up our own internal team to support the market but also finding a partner who could help us truly understand and localize our brand for the region.
HKTDC: You partnered with franchise operator Upper East Holdings to bring the brand to Hong Kong. What has it taught you about the Hong Kong market?
RO: Upper East Holdings has been an incredible partner in bringing Sugarfina to life in Hong Kong. It has a deep understanding of the Hong Kong shopper and is incredibly creative, bringing many new ideas to the table.
It taught us that Hong Kong shoppers love high quality and newness, and that localization and exclusivity are very important to success in the market. Using these insights, we partnered to create a new soft-serve and beverage concept launching exclusively in Hong Kong, with creative flavors inspired by Sugarfina candies, including a Charcoal Popcorn Latte and Rosé Champagne-infused soft serve.
HKTDC: Which similar brands have inspired you and why?
RO: We’re very inspired by the success of (New York-based cake and confectionery brand) Lady M in Hong Kong. Upper East Holdings took a very thoughtful approach to developing the brand and executed perfectly on so many details such as quality, experience, flavor innovation and packaging. We also love (Hong Kong artisan gelato café) Givrés which serves beautiful – and very Instagrammable! – gelato roses.
HKTDC: Some of your bestsellers include the Champagne Bears, Sugar Lips and the Three-Piece Bento Box, where customers can select a trio of candies. Which products are going over well here?
RO: Many of the bestsellers in the U.S. are also bestsellers in Hong Kong, such as Champagne Bears, Peach Bellini, Single Malt Scotch Cordials and Ice Cream Cones. Some candies that are more popular in Hong Kong include Bella Rosa, a rose-shaped candy infused with rosewater made in Italy, and Fuji Apple Caramels, a creamy caramel made in California with a tart apple flavor.
HKTDC: You introduced a two-piece bento box inspired by the Hong Kong tram to celebrate your launch. Will there be similar Hong Kong-themed promotions?
RO: The Hong Kong tram Candy Bento Box has been a huge success, and we’re currently designing a new collection for Chinese New Year. Hong Kong shoppers can expect a luxurious, over-the-top Dancing Dragon Candy Bento Box, plus new candies inspired by the festivities such as Lucky Pigs and Golden Chocolate Pearls.
HKTDC: Are you planning to open any other shops in Hong Kong or Asia?
RO: We’re opening a second store in Hong Kong later this year, and we’ll be announcing more details soon. In 2019 and 2020, we plan to expand into other regions of Asia including Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and the mainland.
HKTDC: As a disruptor of the candy industry, what do you predict to be the next trends in this market and how will you stay ahead of the curve?
Innovation is a core part of the Sugarfina brand – we’re always thinking about how we can bring newness and excitement to confectionery. For us, it’s about finding that perfect combination of luxury plus fun, something that delights you and makes you smile, but also feels very special and high quality. We don’t really think about specific trends, as trends come and go and any food concept can be trendy for a short moment. Instead, we focus on our customers and how we can create new and exciting ways to surprise and delight them.