I’ve been a sugar addict my whole life—and I really was an addict. Eventually, I realized it was affecting my health and how I felt about myself. So I quit.
But I missed candy. Meanwhile, you were starting to see healthier versions of chips, ice cream and pizza. But in candy, there was no innovation where you could feel good about it.
I was just finishing my second year at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I was in the arts department, but I wasn't passionate about anything, so I ended up just taking a lot of German classes. I thought that if I could speak German to my grandma—who's also a sugar addict and has a lot of health problems because of it—that'd be a win.
It was after a conversation with her about sugar that I started thinking: I want to feel good about candy again—so why can't I?
The challenge with reinventing candy is that it's 99.9% made of sugar, so you're starting from the ground up. I started reading food journals to learn about ingredients that could replace corn syrup, which is the bulking agent in candy. I ordered some gummy-bear moulds on Amazon and started experimenting. It was late summer, and I was living in a basement apartment, working in a tiny kitchen with some pretty retro equipment. My dishwasher had a manual hookup, and I was running it all the time to get the goop off the thermometers. You cook candy at really high temperatures, and the steam would go out my window and into my landlord's kitchen. They thought I was cooking cannabis gummies.
I went through well over 200 recipe iterations, trying different plant-based fibers to mimic the corn syrup. I leaned on raw-material suppliers for help—they wanted to sell those ingredients to me, so they would open up the expertise of their scientists. Of course, I never disclosed that it was just me in my kitchen with my moulds.
I went through failure after failure, but I finally landed on tapioca fiber as the bulking agent and stevia for sweetness. I had been using stevia for years. It's an extract from the stevia rebaudiana plant, and it's 100 times sweeter than sugar. The biggest challenge is that it has an aftertaste, so I really had to work to balance the sweetness of the product with that aftertaste.
Finally, I landed on a recipe that was 90% there in terms of taste and texture. That final 10% would come from scaling up for manufacturing.
I dropped out of university, and less than a year later, SmartSweets were on store shelves. By the end of 2019, we’ll have revenue of over $50 million, and we’ll be in 20,000 stores. That includes all major Canadian grocers, along with Cineplex and most of the regional chains, like London Drugs and Bulk Barn. In the U.S., Whole Foods was one of our first big customers. But we’re also launching nationwide at Kroger, Target and other chains, and in the checkout aisle at 500 Walmart stores.
Jeff Bezos likes to say that at Amazon, it’s always day one. It’s about having that urgency—that we could still fail any day. But at SmartSweets, we’re just getting started.
Interview by Dawn Calleja