At three years old, Chris Kadow-Dougherty packed her little pink suitcase and tried running away to the candy store. Her mother found her at the corner and brought her back home.
“It’s taken nearly 40 years, but I finally have my own candy shop!” exclaims the founder, owner and chief candy maker at Whimsical Candy.
Now that’s a lifelong dream come true.
Following a long tradition of downtown Chicago candy shops, Whimsical Candy sits in the business district that beamed with confectionery storefronts in the early 1900s. Kadow-Dougherty’s 1,500-sq.-ft. kitchen and shop are in the original DeMet’s Candy Co. factory, which was in operation from the late 1800s through the 1940s.
She even acquired a life-size wall mount of the original turtle, which she placed to the rear of the kitchen. He overlooks day-to-day operations and serves as a conversation piece for customers.
“I love the idea of now being the only practicing candy maker in the loop,” Kadow-Dougherty says. “It’s great fun when people discover Whimsical Candy for the first time, then we become their go-to for teacher gifts, meeting treats, or just an afternoon snack.”
A lifelong candy lover, Kadow-Doughtery was moved to step out of her non-profit fundraising career and into something she truly looked forward to a few years back. Not long after, she found herself enrolled in the French Pastry School.
Just one year following her graduation, in 2008, Whimsical Candy was born.
Kadow-Dougherty’s dream was to create a high-quality spin on the classic candy bar, but she fell in love with nougat during school. “I also love the classic swirl confection, but wanted to do a chewy version rather than a pulled sugar version. The La-Dee-Dah was born!”
Whimsical Candy’s signature chews are handmade swirls of white chocolate nougat and sea salt caramel dipped in dark chocolate. The bestsellers go for $6.49 for a three-piece box.
When the company was launched, Kadow-Dougherty sold exclusively wholesale. Within two years she expanded to include caramels and an e-commerce site. Last year she opened her first retail shop, which is also the production kitchen for wholesale. Now, she’s sharing La-Dee-Dahs with more than 70 specialty shops across the country.
“The retail location has given me the space and customer base to expand my line to include more caramels, a line of nougat bars, some fruity candy and small pastries,” she says.
Tucked away on the lower level of a business building in Chicago’s downtown, Whimsical Candy doesn’t take up a storefront. But if you head down the stairs and into the charming hallway that makes up the entrance to the shop, you won’t be able to turn back. The sweet smell of buttery caramel and rich chocolate is just too tempting.
The hallway’s right wall is lined with windows that offer a peak into the kitchen — an opportunity to catch the legendary La-Dee-Dah in the making. Reach the end, make a right, and you’re into the cute shop that features finished products. With small pink and purple suitcases positioned here and there, along with a doll sitting in a corner chair, the shop so simply illustrates the sweet story behind the business.
“We specialize in candy, specifically nougat and caramel. Our candy is all hand-made in small batches, using fresh dairy and premium ingredients like Valhrona chocolate. We also do some small pastries, such as our Whimsy Pie,” Kadow-Dougherty explains.
Because of the location most of the shop’s customers are business people looking for a sweet treat after lunch. Whimsical also sells a lot of corporate gifts and favors to businesses looking for something local and special.
“I also sell my La-Dee-Dahs to specialty grocers across the country. And I have a thriving on-line business with a very diverse customer base of candy lovers of all ages, in all communities,” she says.
Like many small business owners, Kadow-Dougherty wears many hats. From making all of the La-Dee-Dahs to product development, she takes care of almost every operation with some help from part-time employees.
Her kitchen is a place of learning too. She hosts an internship program for students from the French Pastry School who are interested in becoming artisan candy makers themselves.
“It is a great exchange. The interns help with production, which gives them the hands-on experience under close supervision, and they also keep me apprised of new techniques they are learning,” she explains.
Whimsical Candy is a sweet success and continues to grow every year, up more than 30 percent last year alone. “I have a great sales rep who has helped tremendously with brand expansion into other states. My website gets a lot of attention, and I do some social media, although I need to work harder at that,” she says.
The latest addition is the Wow Bar, which launched last spring. It is a crunchy/chewy, savory/sweet, chocolaty wonder with chocolate nougat, salty caramel, all-natural peanut butter and pretzels dipped in dark chocolate. “I call it the Wow Bar because when people take a bite they literally say ‘Wow!’” she explains.
Moving forward, Kadow-Dougherty says she wants to increase foot traffic to the shop. “It is great fun for me to interact with the end customer, the candy lover, which did not happen when I was selling exclusively wholesale.”
She also wants to start offering candy-making classes for small groups. She receives a lot of requests and hopes to launch her first class this spring.
If she could go back in time, she says she’d have launched an e-commerce site sooner and prepared herself better for the seasonal nature of the business. “I would have thought more about shipping during hot weather months, maybe created candy that is heat tolerant.”
Being a small business in an industry as big as the candy industry is definitely challenging, but Kadow-Dougherty says she loves getting up in the morning to go make candy and pastries.
“I am a lifelong candy lover. Candy is fun and nostalgic for me, it’s not serious,” she says. “It is why I changed careers. I am lucky to have been able to make it a reality, with the support of family and friends.”