Two Sweet Startups Inspired by Kids
Oh, the lengths parents will go to wow their kids. In 2012, Duluth dad Dean Packingham set about making “the best cocoa in the world,” which became Mike & Jen’s Hot Cocoa, named for his son and daughter and now sold in 700 stores throughout the Midwest. In February 2021, Edina mom Maddy Persuitti decided to make her young daughter a charcuterie-style board of intricately styled candies for Valentine’s Day. It looked so professional, a local gift shop wanted to sell it, so she and two friends incorporated as Candy4Supper. It’s been a sweet year for both brands.
Mike & Jen’s Hot Cocoa
Hot chocolate sales typically drop in the spring, but in April 2020, just as Covid-19 hit, Mike & Jen’s sold one case for the entire month. “It was really frightening,” says Dean Packingham, who launched the brand in 2013 sold primarily through specialty shops like Duluth Kitchen Co.
But as the pandemic kept people at home and packaged food orders soared, regional chains started seeking specialty brands “with a story,” says Packingham. He co-owns the cocoa company with his friend Amanda Cunningham; both are retired meteorologists. So, after humming along for years, Mike & Jen’s doubled its grocery store business last year. Online orders rose from 10 to 35 percent of the business.
Nowhere is Mike & Jen’s more readily available than in its hometown of Duluth—45 stores in all. But that market saturation didn’t deter the local Costco. A Costco floor manager discovered Mike & Jen’s in a local shop shortly before Costco opened its first Duluth store in October and decided the product should be in the new store. Packingham and Cunningham spent six months prepping for the Costco launch, creating a special 2.5-pound bag that retails for $15.99. Because the cocoa company outsources production, storage, shipping, and fulfillment, it could grow without hiring staff.
Mike & Jen’s quickly became a top 10 food product for the Duluth Costco, tripling projected sales for the cocoa company. Now, other large retailers are calling.
“It really validates a brand,” Packingham says. He hopes to be in all Minnesota Costco stores by fall. mikeandjens.com
Conversation hearts don’t cut it for Maddy Persuitti. “I still think like a camp counselor—I’m always making things cute and crafty,” says the mom of two. For Valentine’s Day 2021, she ordered jelly beans, licorice, and gummies in red, pink, and white. She and fellow moms Cassie Benowitz and Lauren Sundick meticulously styled the candies on square boards. Their kids, ages 4 to 9, loved it, and so did the owners of Minneapolis gift shop Bean & Ro, who ordered a dozen boards on the spot. The candy styling trio quickly realized they needed a company name and a website. In addition to their seasonally themed boards, custom orders are pouring in for corporate gifts, bar mitzvahs, and fundraisers. “People are finding us around the country,” Sundick says. Candy boards start at $29.
Candy4Supper recently moved out of Sundick’s basement and into vacant space at the headquarters of dpHue, the Minneapolis-based hair color company where Persuitti is vice president of sales and operations. Persuitti isn’t the only one with another regular gig: Benowitz is a partner in 2Health Marketing, and Sundick is a physician assistant and co-founder of The Skin Sisters consultancy.
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The founders aren’t quitting their day jobs just yet, but Candy4Supper expects to add more retailers this year. It’s now sold at Grocer’s Table in Wayzata as well as at Bean & Ro. candy4supper.com