Sumptuous Lollies works to elevate a common confection
A year ago, Mercedes McKinlay was a high school student in Fort Saskatchewan. Now she’s a Culinary Arts student at NAIT and a budding entrepreneur whose gourmet lollipops were recently featured in swag bags for attendees at the Grammy Awards.
The Sumptuous Lollies created by McKinlay and her mother, Kerry, have elevated the lowly sucker into a classy confection, studded with flower petals, ribbons of colour and even flecks of 24-karat gold. The playful, photogenic lollies, which sell for $5 each, have turned a mother-daughter craft project into a busy home business, thanks in part to the power of social media.
The lollies have been spotted on Instagram feeds from as far away as Bali, Indonesia. A bride in Texas ordered some for her wedding. A woman from Lithuania messaged Sumptuous Lollies about buying some. A growing number of stores have contacted them about stocking the pretty, colourful pops, which come in unique flavours like raspberry lemonade and watermelon basil sea salt.
“We had no idea it would get this big,” says Mercedes, 18.
While the lollipops haven’t appeared on any celebrity social feeds since the Grammys (unless you count Alberta premier Rachel Notley, who posted about them on Facebook), they’ve definitely found an audience among young, social-media-savvy fans.
“That’s why we wanted to make [the lollipops] not only taste good but look good too. We want people to go, ‘Wow, I almost don’t want to eat this because of how nice it is.’” And then, of course, post it on Instagram.
The McKinlays never expected their first fancy lollies to turn into such a sweet business. Around this time last year, Mercedes was looking online for lollipops adorned with flowers, not because she particularly likes lollipops, but because she likes food embellished with flowers. When she couldn’t find any, she enlisted her mother’s help to make some.
They shared the results with family and friends, starting with one with a viola at its centre, then began experimenting with new varieties. Someone suggested they try selling them at the Fort Saskatchewan farmers market, so they set up their production in the kitchen of the Fort Saskatchewan Legion Hall.
The suckers proved so popular at the market that they approached Freson Bros. grocery in Fort Saskatchewan and Maker’s Keep, an Edmonton gift store, about stocking them.
“We weren’t focused on making it a business; we were just doing what we loved.”
“We started making them last March or April and within a month, we were in a store,” Mercedes says. “We weren’t focused on making it a business; we were just doing what we loved.”
Kerry, manager of entrepreneurship at ATB Financial, worked on the business logistics while Mercedes, fuelled by her culinary education, developed flavours. They now have about 100 kinds, including maple bacon waffle (with a tiny waffle embedded in the candy), cranberry thyme, lavender blueberry and rootbeer float. For special occasions, they offer limited flavours like cinnamon heart for Valentine’s Day, stout for St. Patrick’s Day and rainbow striped lollies during NAIT Pride Week earlier this month.
Growth from Grammys
While Sumptuous Lollies is still a hobby business for the two women, it’s becoming an increasingly busy one. They still make their lollipops out of the Legion Hall, but now, instead of making 10 dozen or so as needed, they’re churning out more than 800 a week for about eight vendors, with more vendors in the works.
Mercedes’ uncle, who lives in Las Vegas, suggested the duo approach awards shows about including the unique lollies in the popular gift bags handed out to attendees. Grammy organizers responded the same day that the McKinlays reached out, saying they’d love to include Sumptuous Lollies in their swag bags.
They produced a custom flavour for the event – sparkling wine with flecks of 24-karat gold and rose petals – and shipped 330 of them to Los Angeles, where the event is held. They provided the lollies for free and paid a promotional fee as well, but the resulting attention has been worth it, they say. Several Edmonton media covered the story of their Grammy success, prompting social media posts by the likes of the premier.
Kathy Leskow (Management ’96), promoted her Confetti Sweets cookie business in a similar way at the Academy Awards in 2015 and 2016. She says promotions like these can help validate a fledgling business.
“It was great for us and I think it’s definitely worth doing if you’re doing it for the right reason,” she says. Don’t expect celebrities to be ordering your product. “I think it’s more about getting your name brand out in your hometown. It makes people trust that your product is worth the money. They think, ‘This went to the Oscars. It must be good so I’ll buy it.’”
"It makes people trust that your product is worth the money."
The McKinlays continue to grow their business, adding new flavours and new vendors all the time. For now, they’re investing most of their profits from the lollies back into the business, Mercedes says.
She plans to keep building Sumptuous Lollies as a side business while she continues her culinary education. The experience has also convinced her she’d like to open a solo business someday – her own restaurant.
“There’s so many other things I want to do, and this is just the start of it,” she says.
Free and effective social media marketing
Social media can be a great, low-cost marketing tool for a small company when it’s used the right way, says Maegan Crowley (Marketing ’11), digital marketing director at Habit, an Edmonton digital creative agency.
The key is to not only post appealing photos and content, but to follow and engage with others who are likely to be interested in your product, she says.
“When people are using it to be social and be engaging online it can make a really big impact, especially for small businesses,” she adds.
The McKinlays also do a great job of putting a human face on their brand to tell their story, says Crowley. “Showing the people behind the brand humanizes it in a way that wasn’t possible before. That’s a really great way to get people on board, telling them where you came from and where you’re going.”