If this were a romantic comedy, when Amy Hansen lost her job, she would’ve drowned her sorrows in a pint of chocolate ice cream.
In actuality, Hansen did turn to sweets for comfort, just not in a predictable Drew Barrymore kind of way. She decided to open a candy store. Coming soon to Damen Avenue: Amy’s Candy Bar.
For the Wisconsin native and Minnesota transplant, the move is part leap of faith, part dream come true and not entirely unexpected. Don’t let the former career in Internet marketing fool you, Hansen is a lifelong baker and a graduate of Chicago’s French Pastry School.
“When I left the French Pastry School, it wasn’t viable for me, as a single woman living in Chicago, to go into the field,” Hansen says. “You make 8 bucks an hour working in a bakery or 10 in a hotel.”
But when she was laid off last summer, Hansen couldn’t stomach the thought of searching for another marketing gig. “I didn’t want to go back, I didn’t have the passion for it.”
What she did have a passion for was sweets. “Every trip I went on, as soon as I saw a bakery, I was in it,” she says.
Over the past few years, she’s kept her skills sharp by making candies, cakes and cupcakes for friends and family and by volunteering in the kitchens at Vanille and Lovely, the owners of which have French Pastry connections. So when a storefront became available on Damen just a few blocks from her home (4704 N. Damen, which previously housed I Do, I Do), she saw her chance and decided to grab it.
“It all comes down to what you’re ready to take on, how confident you are, and do you have the finances,” Hansen says. “When you’re ready for it to happen, things come together.”
One of the first things that came together for Hansen was a grant from Chicago’s Small Business Improvement Fund. She’s the first to admit that her current employment status, or lack thereof, didn’t exactly make her the most attractive loan applicant. “Because of the money I got from the grant, a bank was willing to give me a small business loan.”
With the city’s recent approval of her constructions permits, Hansen’s aiming for a grand opening in late May, or thereabouts. (Stay tuned to this space for more details.)
Though the middle of a recession doesn’t seem the best environment in which to start a business, Hansen thinks the timing actually works in her favor. “Everyone wants a little bit of an indulgence,” she says. “Most people can afford a 50 cent piece of candy—it’s an affordable luxury.”
Hansen is also riding a foodie trend that started with arugula and has of late extended to pastries. In addition to the ubiquitous and seemingly unquenchable craze for cupcakes, macarons, whoopie pies and cake balls are all enjoying increased popularity. It seems years of low-carb diets have left people craving good old butter and sugar — just witness the recently opened Doughnut Vault, playing to sold-out crowds daily.
“I’ll have ice cream, penny candy, nostalgic candy. I’ll make cupcakes, cookies and brownies.” She also plans to feature the treats of other local artisans.
Her signature items, though, will be her homemade caramels and nougat, trademarks of French Pastry School technique. “I haven’t met one person who hasn’t tried them and said, ‘This is the best caramel.’ They melt in your mouth and don’t stick to your teeth,” Hansen emphasizes. (A Snickers bar, by the way, has about as much in common with homemade nougat as Spam has with actual meat.)
Once it’s up and running full time, Amy’s Candy Bar will fill a hole left by the departure of Sweet Occasions. “Just talking to people in the neighborhood, I know they miss that,” she says. Kids, families, commuters and students now have a place to get their sugar fix.
In addition to foot traffic, Hansen aims to grow her customer base through those twin towers of social media—Twitter and Facebook. (Neighboring business Orange Beautiful has assisted with the candy shop’s logo and website.) “I know I need to use them. I’m going to be the face of the business and I want people to get to know me,” she says.
Still, this former Internet marketer confesses she’s been lax with the posts and updates. “I’m used to consulting,” Hansen laughs, “not doing.”
We’ll let it slide, as long as those caramels are as good as promised.