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Annapolis Sweet Shoppe goes for the personal touch

ANNAPOLIS — When 4-year-old Johnny Criswell skipped into the Annapolis Sweet Shoppe with his mother, his eyes were wide with wonder.

Susan Leonard

He went up to the back wall lined with shelves of candy, towering over him, and pulled a Starburst out of one of the few jars he could reach. He then managed to knock over a neighboring jar of Airheads, spilling them all over the floor. But proprietor and shop owner Susan Leonard didn’t mind.

“People are missing the connection,” said Leonard, 45, who cut the ribbon at her candy shop on Annapolis Street on Feb. 4., just in time for Valentine’s Day. “We miss the relationship of a store owner. We miss being able to connect when we walk into a store.”

She hopes that small-shop personal connection, the nostalgic, fine artisan and international candies, and the “Willy Wonka imagination” will draw in customers of all ages. The Sweet Shoppe also provides a venue for children’s birthday parties, and Leonard already has several lined up.

See some of Leonard’s “Willy Wonka imagination.”

Among the nostalgic candies she sells are candy cigarettes — which had already sold out Friday — candy buttons, licorice pipes, Zagnuts, Pop Rocks and wax lips. She is also fully stocked with the usual confectionery suspects: Hershey’s, Milky Way, Mr. Goodbar, Kit Kat, Snickers, Reese’s, Junior Mints and many more.

For Valentine’s Day, the Sweet Shoppe is selling the Love & Kisses Collection heart-shaped box and other offerings from renowned chocolatier Norman Love Confections, a Valentine’s Day package for $35, and reduced prices on small candy and chocolate items for children to use with valentines at school.

Based on the two dozen customers and several hundred dollars in sales she had in just the first two hours Friday, she said she is confident the Sweet Shoppe will be a success.

But Leonard knows that candy bar sales may not be enough to keep the one-room shop profitable.

“We don’t have much mark up on candy,” she said, adding that it’s typically not more than 50 percent. Most regular candy bars in the store are between 50 cents and $1.50; hand-made chocolate lollipops, shaped like crabs and rockfish, are $3; and boxes of higher-end and fine artisan chocolate, such as Norman Love chocolates, range from $25 to $75, with special assortments that can cost up to $100.

To hold a birthday party at the Sweet Shoppe costs $25 per guest, with a six-guest minimum.

Leonard said she opened the shop with money she had saved up over the years and decided not to get a bank loan. She declined to say the exact amount she invested, but said that typically proprietors of similar shops will invest anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to get started.

The low cost of commercial real estate space due to the economy was also a help, she said. The venue at 103 Annapolis St. was empty for a year before she signed in November and began setting up for its mid-December soft opening, when they opened the doors for a few hours a week.

But the threat of a shaky economy doesn’t stir Leonard — quite the opposite, in fact.

“Confectionery sales, particularly, in candy stores … these sales rise in times of national unease and down economy,” she said. “People can take a small dollar amount and feel lavish.”

Bernard Pacyniak, the editor-in-chief of Candy Industry, a magazine that covers the confectionery business, said the industry has proven to be recession resistant.

“Overall, I think it’s a solid industry,” he said. Chocolate sales — which are dominant at the Sweet Shoppe — continuously outperform other candy, too.

He said Leonard’s nostalgia angle has also been effective in the candy sales business.

“Nostalgia continues to remain a strong niche,” said Pacyniak, so grandparents can walk in with their grandchildren and show them the kind of candy they used to eat.

He added that a strong local connection will further help improve a candy shop’s chance of success.

Leonard had been very active politically in the 1990s, working in the media affairs office at the White House during George H.W. Bush’s presidency and for the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also was a video producer for then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and worked as the media director for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, during his 1996 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. (“From candidates to candy,” she said.)

Leonard took some time off from politics in the late 1990s when she had her two children: Torrey, 14, and Lucy, 11. She then got her masters in theological studies at Wesley Theological Seminary, finishing in 2009.

Dan Leonard, Susan’s husband, is the president of the nonprofit National Pharmaceutical Council in Washington, D.C. But he says he’d prefer to hang out in the Sweet Shoppe all day, sweeping the floors and admiring their refurbished, operational 1962 Nehi Grape Soda machine — the only one on the East Coast, he said.

The machine vends Nehi sodas in grape, orange and peach, as well as Dr Pepper, A&W Root Beer and Sun Drop. (The coin slot says 10 cents per bottle, but they charge $1.25.)

To complement that old candy shop feeling, she also has a rotary phone on the wall and uses an old-fashioned cash register.

But even a retro candy shop needs a few modern gadgets. For credit card purchases, Leonard’s son Torrey set up her iPad with the “Square” application. A small credit card reader about the size of a Now and Later candy plugs into the headphone jack, and each item in the store is registered on the app.

Leonard is also using modern methods to get the word out, such as social media and radio. Already, the Sweet Shoppe has more than 350 Facebook “likes,” and she expects to have a Twitter page and a website up soon, she said.

Local radio stations WRNR and WNAV have also had Leonard on their programs to promote the shop.

Leonard said opening the store has been on her bucket list, and this was finally the right time to go for it. She wanted to have a place where her children and other young people could grow up, and come in to hang out with their friends.

Sam Carl, 19, Rachel Slater, 20 and Paige Miller, 19, all in the U.S. Naval Academy just a few blocks away, took a short detour from their afternoon run Friday into the Sweet Shoppe. The trio said they had been running past the shop for weeks wondering when it would open.

Naval Academy midshipmen (from left) Sam Carl, Paige Miller and Rachel Slater talk to shop owner Susan Leonard.

“There’s a lot of people down here, especially [in] the neighborhoods, and we run by here a lot,” Slater said. “I know a lot of the Naval Academy kids are coming down this way, parking down here. I think it will be a good location, it should get a lot of business.”

Leonard, who engages everyone who comes through the door, gave them some of the chocolate lollipops shaped like the Navy anchor logo. She said the Navy girls may even take her running with them soon.

“When you have that small-town feel, people want to help you succeed,” Leonard said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see a small business fail.”

But Leonard said she’s not afraid to fail. She hopes that the Annapolis Sweet Shoppe inspires others to take a “business leap.”

“If we fail, we fail,” she said. But “if the lights are on and the flag is outside for one year. … If we’re still here and we’re advertising for Christmas candy, I just feel like we’ve won.”