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Gooey gourmet marshmallows vie to be the ‘new cupcake’

This is a Lemon Meringue Pie marshmallow made by Kimberley’s Kitchen, based in Telkwa, B.C.

Magna Vita Photography

On a slow sales day retailers open their doors to entice customers to enter. But Mai Ha uses a different tactic to drum up business. She grabs a box of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows and hits the beach.

That's exactly what the owner of Toronto-based I Love Puffy Love, a maker of handmade, gourmet marshmallows, did last summer. Picking through her own selection of fluffy confections that come in flavours ranging from Chocolate Banana Wish to Maple Cinnamon Kiss, she finally settled on Orange Burst and hopped on the ferry to Toronto Island.

It didn't take long before strangers started gathering around her small fire to find out what she was roasting. After all, Ms. Ha's marshmallows smelled nothing like the über-processed grocery store variety.

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"Everybody was just so interested so I started giving my marshmallows out and having them try them. It was awesome," she says.

I Love Puffy Love is far from being the only epicurean marshmallow producer filling online orders as well as shelves at high-end grocers and coffee shops today. Other companies are popping up in Canada and the United States ready to churn out trays of the treats made from nothing more than gelatin, sugar, corn syrup and flavourings, leading one New York Times food blogger to proclaim them "the new cupcakes." (To be fair, gourmet doughnuts are contenders for the title, according to a CBC online poll conducted earlier this year. And this being Canada, gourmet butter tarts ranked high, too.)

Still, any buzz can mean more money in the till, says Justin Leavens, vice-president at Plush Puffs Gourmet Marshmallows in Burbank, Calif.

"As long as people are talking about marshmallows, it's a good thing," he says.

He knows of what he speaks. Plush Puffs is a virtual granddaddy in the young industry. Its owner, Ann Hickey-Williams, worked as a personal chef and caterer in the Los Angeles area before whipping up her first batch of marshmallows before Christmas in 2004. After family and friends told her they would buy them to give as gifts, she launched the company in 2005 and never looked back.

Today the company ships to more than 600 retailers in the United States and Canada and imports to Britain. Whole Foods Market carries Plush Puffs, and the Food Network once came calling. Mr. Leavens says that during a busy month, the company makes 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of the treat.

Sweet success travelled a rocky road, though. The company got its big break in 2009 when Starbucks placed a massive order for its Seattle's Best Coffee chain. Within months Plush Puffs went from shipping cases of marshmallows to filling a warehouse. The secret to pulling it off? Becoming an expert at everything overnight.

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"A lot of people can make a great product, but they have to be able to sell it, support it, do advertising and make that product shelf-stable," Mr. Leavens says.

Not to mention deal with other challenges such as heat and humidity. Delivering marshmallows across the United States means using refrigerated transportation, which drives up cost. Even with these headaches, however, Mr. Leavens is devoted to the product. (Favourite flavour: Cherry Chocolate Chip.)

"Marshmallow is awesome. It's retro and hip at the same time. People are immediately drawn back to that campfire circle," he says.

Sometimes customers are drawn to a craft or farmers' market table, too. That's what Kimberley Mulla, owner of Kimberley's Kitchen in Telkwa, B.C., discovered back in 2010 when she started selling her marshmallows at those locations.

Wanting a creative outlet during her second maternity leave, she launched the business to keep busy and make some cash. Little did she know how fast the product would take off. Coming up to her two-year anniversary, she's now preparing to hire two part-time employees to help in the company's commercial kitchen during the busy weeks when she sells about 1,500 individual marshmallows. The big ones come six in a bag.

She also creates custom marshmallows for weddings and events. Don't bother putting in an order for 2012, though – she's all booked up.

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While finding ways to source organic ingredients to make flavours such as Raspberry Cheesecake or Key Lime can be a challenge, Ms. Mulla admits that her biggest is time. In short, as a human resources manager for a local credit union by day and marshmallow maven by night, time is not easy to come by.

"I always joke that I should post that my business hours are 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.," she says, laughing.

Ms. Ha, in Toronto, also squeezes her marshmallow business into her off-hours. As a graphic designer, she works her marshmallow magic in the evenings and weekends when she sells at craft fairs. Selling in those locations is a good move, she says, because her online orders don't allow her to see customers' faces when they take their first bite.

Or be in the position to change their minds if people tell her they hate marshmallows. Her solution is simple: Offer a sample.

"When I do that these people are so surprised by how good they are. Mine are not like packaged marshmallows at all. They're fresh and gooey," she says.

Flavours to try

What drew Kimberley Mulla, owner of Kimberley's Kitchen in Telkwa, B.C., to marshmallow making?

"The fun is really in creating all the different flavours," she says. Here are a few of the most popular and surprising ones marshmallow businesses are concocting today:

  • Chai
  • Peanut Butter & Jelly
  • Lemon Coconut
  • Vanilla Bean Dream
  • Lemon Sunshine
  • Sydney’s Cinnamon
  • Cherry Chocolate Chip
  • White Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut
  • Champagne
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