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Building an empire on a sweet foundation


NEW YORK -- On a recent sunny day, Gail Williams breezed into an Upper East Side candy store with her daughter and grandchildren in tow.

A 10-foot high statue of a chocolate bunny greeted them. A whimsical lollipop tree grew out of one corner. Shelves were filled with both vintage Pez dispensers and candy bars with labels like "PMS chocolate." And stools decorated in candy cane stripes, tabletops made of M&M; mosaics and vases of chocolate roses filled the two-story space.

Predictably, Williams' grandchildren raced through the store, playing with spin pops and checking out gummy bears in rare flavors like Poppin Pineapple. Less expectedly, the grandchildren weren't the only ones in candy rapture.

"This is wonderful," gushed Williams, 65, a Vero Beach, Fla., homemaker who resembled a typical Manhattan socialite with her long sable coat and perfectly coiffed, silvery blond hair. "It takes me back to my childhood."

That's exactly the reaction co-owner Dylan Lauren is hoping for.

Yes, that's Lauren as in daughter of Ralph Lauren, Mr. Fashion Empire.

Dylan Lauren, 27, opened Dylan's Candy Bar, her upscale candy emporium in October hoping to create a candy Disneyland with a Willy Wonka flavor that appealed to people of all ages with one thing in common -- a sweet tooth.

"There's something in here for everyone, from the people who live on Park Avenue to downtown hipsters," said Lauren, wearing tight Polo jeans, a crisp white Ralph Lauren shirt and black boots -- also by Dad -- and looking as if she had just stepped out of one of her father's ads.

"My friends in their 20s love it because, even if they're on a diet, they love buying gifts for other people," she added. "Adults love it because they haven't seen some of this stuff in a while. We have candy Palm Pilots, cell phones with lollipops in them and people are like, 'What is that?' We have a lot of unusual stuff that no one else carries."

A need for nostalgia

With its quirky decor -- featuring a cashier's counter that resembles a giant chocolate bar -- and a mind-boggling array of more than 500 products, from M&Ms; in 23 different colors to a 4-pound Hershey kiss, the 5,500- square-foot emporium clearly is different from many other candy stores. The store also features an ice cream bar and soda fountain that has become popular as a dessert destination for high schoolers to retirees.

Lauren's business formula has made Dylan's Candy Bar a success despite opening so soon after Sept. 11. Not only has it survived a time when losses have forced many Manhattan stores to close, the store has also been so successful that it sold $20,000 worth of candy in just one January day. She and partner Jeff Rubin have been so buoyed they currently are scouting locations for two more stores to open next year.

"Sept. 11 seems to have had an opposite effect on us," Rubin said. "It created a need for nostalgia, and we just happened to be there. And we've created this wonderful ambience where people just feel they can escape to their childhood or that child within the adult. It's a very warm place to be, a feel-good place."

Dylan's Candy Bar is Lauren's first foray into sweets. The Duke University graduate started an events-planning firm after college but, she said, always gravitated toward candy.

"It means such good things to me -- it always makes me happy," she said. "I was always buying candy for friends or collecting candy that was unusual, like chocolate caviar or champagne glasses filled with jellybeans. When I would throw parties, I sometimes had candy centerpieces or candy goodie bags. Once, we did an event and the invitation was a thing of big gumballs, and it was fun and made it a more memorable invite than your typical card."

Finally, about two years ago she began searching for a partner who shared her vision for a modern candy emporium. Rubin, who founded FAO Schwarz's candy store, FAO Schweetz, said he and Lauren discovered instantly that they shared a love for the product and not just the business of it.

"I've been selling candy since I was 11 years old, and my whole life I focused on how to sell it," he said. "When I met Dylan, we talked for one hour about candy itself. We both walked away thinking, 'We've got to get married. This is candy heaven here.' "

Rubin said he has checked out spaces in Tysons Corner, Va., Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas and San Francisco in the search for the new locations.

Excited about candy

Tom Julian, a New York-based retail and fashion analyst for Fallon Worldwide, said Dylan's Candy Bar has done well because it has managed to draw adults as well as children. Part of the appeal comes from stocking products like chocolate body paint and cigars and candles and bath products with a candy theme.

"FAO Schweetz is very cutesy and gimmicky and cartoony, but people don't think of Dylan's as any of that," Julian said. "It appeals to the young and fun as well as the sophisticated. She's got the high end and the low end, and if you want to send someone a gift, it's become just like sending exotic flowers if you're sending exotic, fun candies."

Lauren said she sells the most candy to customers in their 40s and 50s.

"They buy corporate gift baskets or spend money on gift baskets they love to create," she said. "People who normally would buy gifts from Tiffany or spend a fortune on jewelry or high-end stuff are buying our gummy bears and lollipops, and they get so excited about the most innocent, cute little candy."

Lauren said her father has been a little surprised at how well the store has done.

"At first, he was like, 'Follow your passion,' " she said. "He showed me how he started with making a tie and it evolved into a whole company. And if there's a need for something or you see something that you would like for yourself, you can take that and share it with other people.

"The only thing he was a little skeptical about was creating a big candy store," she added. "He grew up with soda fountains and little mom-and-pop shops. I don't think he even knew what was going on in my head about having a place that was 5,000 square feet. He was, like, 'How are you going to fill a store that big with candy?' And I was thinking, 'I could fill three stores like this with candy.' I don't think he realized the number of products that are out there and how many people love candy."

Today, however, Ralph Lauren is a regular at his daughter's store. And the designer -- who is partial to chocolate licorice and buttercrunch -- has become such a fan of her ice-cream that she had tubs of it sent to the restaurant where he and his wife celebrated their wedding anniversary earlier this year.

Lauren also clearly has learned some of her father's business savvy. She hopes to someday market the Dylan Lauren lifestyle the same way her father has done with his label.

"I want to do sort of what Martha Stewart does, like maybe show people how to make your own chocolate at home," she said.

And her experience designing T-shirts and logos for her own store has started her thinking about designing her own candy.

But for all the big plans Lauren has, some of her biggest fans don't seem to think her store needs any improving.

"Every time we come to New York, we have to go to Dylan's Candy Bar," said Karen Zimmerman, 42, a Greenwich, Conn., interior designer who was in New York for the day with her mother, Williams, and children, Zachary, 11, and Olivia, 8. "They think it's the best candy store in the world."

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