You’ve probably passed by Sugar Sugar’s tiny storefront dozens of times without realizing the glory just inside. Its whitewashed shelves are lined with huge glass jars teeming with candies long though extinct, a vintage candy bar dispenser that looks like one of those cigarette dispensers long since banned from backwater bars, and homemade concoctions like tamarind chili pixie sticks. Almost every kind of sweet found within can be found nowhere else in the Twin Cities. The store is truly unique.
Despite slinging the stuff of dreams, Sugar Sugar is really quite the anomaly*, as it is recognized more often on a national scale than locally. In preparing for our visit to the store, I was hard-pressed to find any of my peers who’d even heard of the place. (*Howler notwithstanding)
Though Sugar Sugar has been in business for just over two years, the shop has never done any advertising, relying instead solely on word of mouth. Yet this charming Kingfield gem has been written-up in the New York Times, crowned one of the ten best candy stores in the country, and featured in Eat Shop’s Minneapolis edition, to name a few.
The mastermind behind this operation is Joni Wheeler. While she’s not immediately reminiscent of Willy Wonka, some of her stories belie a spiritual camaraderie with the candyman. “That’s the funny thing. I just got [included in Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine's list of] ‘75 Best Places for Kids’ but I never envisioned this as a… I never though about children. Never. It never crossed my mind. I was just making a store I liked. I know it seems so incredibly dumb, but it never occurred to me that kids would come… that kids would seek it out.”
So it’s not that Joni dislikes children, per se, it’s just that she didn’t create Sugar Sugar for them. “Packaging is really what I love. Candy is the perfect purveyor of packaging. Candy has a really broad scope with a really narrow focus. So as long as it’s candy related—there’s candy jewelry, there’s candy perfume (both of which I have), you can do vintage, you can do new—I’m safe. And I can bring my love of vintage in, along with new, hip, bright stuff and it all works together.”
When the initial plan to set up shop in Uptown fell through due to the area’s prohibitive costs, the perfect spot located in her own neighborhood found Joni on her way home one day. Originally the space at 38th and Grand was part of a general store dating back to 1900. The fact that the places where the general store owners had anchored bar stools at their countertop are still visible hints at another element of Joni’s venture that she hadn’t seen coming.
“Candy is very evocative, so I get a lot of personal stories. I’ve likened it to being a candy bartender before because people come in and the smells and the looks of the bars throw them way back and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my grandfather always had this kind of candy’… I’m maybe a little private and so it’s shocking to me what people will tell you. It’s fine, it just was a surprise. I think people underestimate candy’s ability to bridge that emotional gap.”
Joni’s expertise in the more concrete aspects of people’s relationship with candy is undeniable. For instance, the first question she asked me (as she does with everyone, in one form or another) when I walked into the shop was, “Are you a chocolate person, or more of a gummy/sour person?” From there the schooling began, disguised in the form of gushing over new treats that knocked her socks off.
“This is some of the best chocolate I’ve ever eaten in my life. And believe me, I’ve eaten a lot. But, you know, I’m not adverse to what I call ‘novel chocolates,’ it has its place. And I love gummy. But fine chocolate is like wine; it’s in a class by itself. Let me cut a piece so it’s manageable.” She handed Ben and me pieces to try as she continued talking about its favorable qualities.
“This one’s from Venezuela. But it’s beautiful, it’s really complex. It doesn’t have any bitter edge to it, which is something I dislike immensely. I buy my chocolate from makers. Part of what effects it is the country that it’s grown in, part of it’s how it’s handled, like wine. The conching process produces different flavor notes. There are people who like that bitter quality. I don’t. So I basically buy to avoid that because I think that it burns out your palate on the high note.”
Should the need for emotional connection with a stranger strike you, and you’re craving something sweeter –and dare I say more complex?—than Jameson, Sugar Sugar is there to fill that void six days a week. Just try not to drop the lids on the glass jars while pouring out your guts to Joni. “When I wake up at three o’clock in the morning, that sound is what I hear.”
Oh how I wish my nightmares were more like those of a candy shop owner…