Confectionery entrepreneur James Ellender has spun a retail business into a global empire, while staying true to his core values
James Ellender can best be described as part Willy Wonka and part Richard Branson. As a young boy loading up his pick ‘n’ mix bags, he used to carefully choose the right ratio of foam bananas to rhubarb and custard candy. And that childhood passion for the sweet life has followed him into adulthood.
Although he acquired a healthy address book working as a consultant for a Spanish confectionery brand, when the company elected to pull out of the UK market Ellender decided the time was ripe to go it alone and start his own venture. While there were plenty of large-scale brands available, he spotted a gap in the market for a thoroughly British brand that offered high-end sweets made by hand from exceptional ingredients. But beyond the candy itself, Ellender wanted to top the excitement of his heady pick ‘n’ mix encounters as a child. “I wanted to take the mystery out of how sweets are made and open people’s minds up to all the possibilities,” he explains.
Key to capturing this experience was the creation of a clear brand identity for the new business, a process the entrepreneur admits was “perhaps the most challenging bit”. Having always been interested in the power of design, he played a hands-on role in crafting the distinctly premium feel that runs through everything from the website to the paper bags, which resemble the striped pick ‘n’ mix bags from his youth.
Ellender’s experience working for a confectionery company on a global scale meant that Spun Candy was designed to work as a franchise from the outset. And, in September 2013, its first retail outlet in London’s Covent Garden was opened. Starting out with a 700 square foot space, the shop resembled a cross between a laboratory and upmarket boutique – giving the product displays drama and drawing new customers in. And as his candy empire began to grow, there’s one thing that tied the outlets together. Ellender recognised early on that experiences were the new luxury and so Spun Candy places an emphasis on delivering a personal experience, not just a product.
One of the franchise’s main draws is that it offers masterclasses and workshops to everyone from hen parties and speed-dating singletons to parents planning children’s birthday parties. “People are looking for personalised experiences,” Ellender says. “We’ve taken that concept a step further by introducing masterclasses that are totally hands on, educational and immersive.” And these experiences have become the business’s biggest growth area, offering people the chance to make their own custom candy. But it’s not just about sweets: it has become experimental theatre. “It’s more than putting your name on a product,” he says. “You can help create the sweets, smell them and have a hand in choosing their flavours or design.”
In fact, Spun Candy takes personalisation so seriously it’s even created an app that lets people see mockups of what the final product would look like. This came about in response to a real customer need: to preview exactly what custom candy would look like before placing an order. “The app brings it to life,” Ellender explains.
But the brand doesn’t only cater to consumers’ sweet tooths: it has also diversified to appeal to corporate clients. Rather than offering off-the-shelf gifts, Spun Candy’s creative team collaborates with companies to devise entirely bespoke solutions. Deep in the Spun Candy labs, Ellender has assembled a diverse team of creatives, confectioners, pastry chefs and entertainers. Together they whip up experimental flavours like chicken madras or fish and chips, which have proven a hit with companies looking to impress at a special launch or event.
No request is too bonkers for Spun Candy. Creations for corporate clients include a Richard Branson lollipop – which came with a tagline too risqué to see the light of day – and a box of sweets that taste like a full Christmas dinner. “We’re very good at finding solutions,” Ellender says. “Everything is possible.” That said, he ensures the solutions stay on the right side of out there. “We draw on a huge range of different talents to help us be creative while making sure that our solutions are practical,” he says. “It’s a balancing act.”
As you can probably tell, Ellender places innovation at the core of the business, with 80% of its budget going into research and development. And when it comes to bringing something new to the market, whether it’s for retail or corporate customers, he takes a move fast, refine later approach. “Just the other week I was with a franchisee and our master confectioner, trying to dream up a new spiced sweet,” he says. Rather than spending hours chewing over over their ideas, the team decided to whip up a batch there and then and see if it passes the taste test. “We have to try things out,” he says. “There’s always time to refine later.”
And Spun Candy doesn’t just move fast when it comes rolling out new product lines. Ellender also recognised the business’s export potential, so within two months of opening the flagship store in London negotiations began on the first two franchises in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Closer to home, Spun Candy opened two new London outposts in Hamley’s Regent Street and Spitalfields Market in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
And as more overseas franchises have opened for business, Ellender has become aware of the need to give local confectionery makers the freedom to introduce innovations of their own, while also ensuring the core brand values shine through. This has resulted in localised flavours like rose in the Middle East, for example. But what happens if they go too far? Simple: Ellender has final sign off and gives feedback on which tasting notes should be dialed up or shut down. “I’ve learned to give local franchisees the autonomy to be creative,” he says. “But if I don’t like it, it does not go any further.”
One of the main challenges of running an overseas franchise with such freedom – particularly when it is operating across international borders – is finding franchisees who understand every element of the process. “They have to be able to pitch, understand retail, deliver experiences, be creative, manufacture premium products, cater to corporate clients and have a passion for confectionery,” says Ellender. Which is why roughly one applicant out of every 100 that the company receives will be deemed to have the right skill set.
And for those that do make the cut, comprehensive training is vital. When they come on board, franchisees receive a suite of manuals and guides, plus an intensive, three-month training period where they learn the art of making sweets from a master confectioner flown in from London. Head office continues to support their marketing and branding needs, figuring out questions like how to display names in Arabic rather than English. And while franchisees source local suppliers for certain ingredients – such as sugar – the flavourings and even heavy-duty production equipment is shipped from specialist UK suppliers. It’s a costly approach but Ellender isn’t willing to compromise on quality.
Circumventing cultural clashes can also pose a challenge. Fortunately, having become something of a global citizen and often finding himself speaking to people from five different countries in a single day, Ellender has gotten very good at negotiating national nuances. For example, he’s now built up a good understanding of the importance of not “losing face” in Asia and the Middle East. “I’ve learned the value of patience and humility,” he says. “It’s also important to remind yourself that people aren’t speaking to you in their first language. When you invest in building good relationships with partners overseas, it tends to produce good results.”
That global mindset will come in handy soon. Ellender is looking to expand his candy empire by deepening its market penetration in the Middle East, opening its first US franchise outlet in Miami this October and taking advantage of the “massive” opportunity in Asia – where a growing middle class means there’s increasing demand for British brands on the higher end of the scale. “We could have at least 50 stores in Asia easily and at least 100 franchisees globally,” he predicts. Success is certainly sweet.