We're closing off 2021 re-sharing some of our favourite pieces of the year. In June, Amelia Tait reported on a new wave of American candy stores taking over central London.
There is a stretch of pavement on Oxford Street – beneath the London College of Fashion and just before the department store John Lewis – where the air mysteriously smells of bubblegum. It’s not that it’s a popular place to vape; there’s no abundance of pink sticky stuff underfoot. Instead, the smell emanates from a tiny plastic tube protruding from a locked purple box next to a small tower of ‘Chips Ahoy!’ breakfast cereal. If you look closely, you can even see the steady stream of scented mist. This aroma-diffusing technology is designed to entice customers into Kingdom of Sweets, a fluorescent candy shop filled with Twinkies, Oreos, Cheetos, and a four-foot Big Ben made of Kit Kats and Cadbury’s Eclairs.
Why would a sweetshop on the UK’s busiest shopping street need to resort to pumping out clouds of gas to get punters through the door? It might have something to do with the amount of local competition. If you walk from Kingdom of Sweets towards Marble Arch, you’ll pass American Candy Land, Worldwide Candy: The House of American Candy and, four doors down from that, the words ‘American Candy’ printed on a blue banner covering an old shop name. Look over the road: there’s Candy Surprise. If you walk back towards Tottenham Court Road, you’ll pass Candy Shop, American Candy, American Candy World, and – if you pop round the corner on to Charing Cross Road – Candy World.
That’s nine American sweetshops in just two kilometres. More than one every 250 metres.
Spies and souvenirs
Inside, these stores are as generically similar as their names. All sell row after row of American snacks – most feature both a bespectacled Harry Potter and a red Jelly Belly sporting a chef’s hat. A single box of cereal can easily set you back £10, while you won’t get much change from a fiver if you want a bag of exotic M&Ms. Most of these shops are decked out with eye-catching pinks, oranges and purples; nearly all are soundtracked by untz-untz-untz-ing electropop (though Kingdom of Sweets does plays Disney music during half term).
The clientele is as varied as the candy – on one visit in October, I spot an immaculate woman in a hijab pointing her phone camera at a wall of gummy sweets emblazoned with the words ‘NEW TIKTOK JELLY FRUITS’ (the bursting candy went viral in 2020, earning a combined 97 million views under the hashtag #JellyFruitChallenge on the app). Meanwhile, a suited businessman enquires about pick ’n’ mix, and two teenage girls clutching frappuccinos chatter excitedly by the Reeses.
Individually, these shops’ red, white, and blue E-numbers run amok. Together, they raise the question: how did London get such a gooey, chewy centre?
‘We were the first people to have a sweetshop in Oxford Street,’ says Alan Wiggett, managing director of Kingdom of Sweets, from behind an imposing mahogany desk in the company’s Soho offices. Framed pictures of sweets line the walls – an unlit and oddly small neon sign reading ‘Welcome to the Kingdom!!!’ distinguishes an otherwise ordinary kitchen. ‘We’ve had people spend over £1,000 before,’ he says. ‘We’ve had to take a trolley up to their house for them.’
The legend of the Kingdom goes like this: 18 years ago, founder Chase Manders started importing American candy to sell on his pick ’n’ mix stand in a Barnsley shopping centre. Customers went wild for it. By 2012, his Oxford Street shop had opened. Then a further five across London. But, as life got sweeter, along came the spies. In 2018, Kingdom of Sweets employees started to notice people sneaking into their stores and taking photographs of the shelves.
‘They come into the shop and they go off and copy us,’ Wiggett says, adding that staff have had to ‘politely’ ask competitors to leave. Since then, Manders has gone from having the only specialist sweetshop on Oxford Street to being merely one of nine. Many copycats used to be souvenir shops. Before that, some housed perfume ‘auctioneers’ with permanent closing-down sales. Wiggett says it’s affected sales. ‘It’s not a competition,’ says Riya, the manager of American Candy World, which has been open a year and which has an 8,000-piece motorised London Eye in the window (it took a week to build). Standing behind his counter next to a gutted bureau de change, he says that every sweetshop on Oxford Street has enough customers walking past to mean that notions of competition are irrelevant. ‘If they’re passing this way,’ he says, ‘they’ll buy it.’
Perhaps competition is irrelevant when the prices are more gut-wrenching than a tub of pickle-flavoured Pringles. An online review for one Oxford Street shop laments ‘Overpriced! overpriced!! overpriced!!!’ – the reviewer posting a picture of a receipt showing they spent £37 on two bags of crisps, a 99g box of sweets, and a jar of peanut butter. Riya says prices are high because of import fees and says his average customer spends between £25 and £30 on six or seven items. Which raises another question: why are so many people prepared to spend so much money on American sweets, and why now?
Gemma Collins is the new Willy Wonka
‘Consumers can’t seem to get enough of all things retro at the moment,’ says Shokofeh Hejazi, senior editor at foods trend agency the Food People. Hejazi explains that ‘there’s comfort in familiarity, especially in uncertain times’ so shoppers look for ‘nostalgic’ treats. At first glance, this answer seems counterintuitive – how many of us ever munched on Twinkies as kids? But Hejazi explains that consumers experience ‘borrowed American nostalgia’. Though Tootsie Rolls and Reeses weren’t in our cupboards growing up, they were nearly always on our TVs.
Then, of course, there’s social media. In the last decade, videos of people desperately trying to be sarcastic as they chew their way through imported Twizzlers have become immensely popular – the top ten YouTube results for ‘British people try American candy’ have 29,840,800 combined views. ‘We’ve seen growing demand for sensory foods that provide “eatertainment”,’ say Alexandra Hayes and Lisa Harris, co-founders of food consultancy business Harris and Hayes. ‘Bright colours, crazy flavours and surprising ingredients – all of which US candy has in abundance.’
American sweets are bigger than ours, dumber than ours and much more photogenic than ours. In the age of influencers that counts for a lot. Check #KingdomOfSweets on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of people posing in their best outfits in front of rows and rows of sweets. (Something I doubt ever happened in front of the Allsorts at Woolworths.) A Story Highlight on the @kingdomofsweetsofficial Instagram account sees reality star Gemma Collins spinning candyfloss, sleeves draped in the drum, while insisting three times that someone film her. Later, she poses with teens under a Toxic Waste sour candy logo; Willy Wonka with bikini tan lines and minus the morality tale.
‘To fit a shop out, it’s a £50,000 sound system, it’s £40,000 on lights, plus the stock,’ says Wiggett. ‘We spend a lot of money trying to get a great experience.’ When I visit the Piccadilly Circus store at midday on a Thursday, a staff member sits on the floor in the selfie corner photographing lollipops while two father-and-son duos browse the wares. Pre-pandemic, the store stayed open until midnight to capitalise on crowds emerging from theatres and restaurants, looking for ‘something sweet on the way home’.
Wiggett says business dropped 80 percent in London after the first lockdown, and when we talk in October, he is pinnning his hopes on the Christmas period (believe it or not, Christmas Day is their busiest day of the year – ‘heaving’ with tourists who have nowhere else to go). Regrettably, further lockdowns dashed these dreams, but Wiggett hopes to attract tourists and theatregoers when that kind of thing is normal again. ‘Our stores are getting busier as the lockdown eases,’ he says when I catch up with him in early May, ‘It’s been tough in the last few months but we have taken on three more stores during the lockdown and they are now trading well.’
The great sugar rush
Now that candy stores have taken control of central London’s tourist traps, they’re coming for your neighbourhood too, leaving a trail of sour dust in their path. Faizal Ravat converted his Stoke Newington newsagent into Hollywood Candy two years ago. ‘I believe if I were still a newsagent, I would’ve shut the shop by now and gone away,’ he says. Ravat is an extremely affable man who somehow has a visible smile behind a facemask. ‘You can’t survive as a newsagent unless you don’t have to pay rent.’
He explains that the transformation started with a small line of American drinks – when customers demanded more, he continued to expand. Now his cornershop is filled to the brim with pancake mixtures, Kool-Aid, and BBQ sauces as well as crisps, crackers and candy. He shows me the small selection of English sweets he offers – Mars Bars, Twixes and of gum, which suddenly seems pathetic and dull. ‘People didn’t have a special reason to go to this shop so we decided to do something different,’ he says.
With more people shopping locally thanks to lockdowns, Ravat’s business boomed in 2020. ‘There are kids, yes, but not every kid can afford American sweets,’ he says. His average candy customer is between 30 and 50 years old. ‘It’s a massive demand,’ he says. But suppliers aren’t always reliable – Ravat says items can go out for stock for months at a time. ‘One Jolly Rancher drink used to sell well but I can’t find it any more,’ he says, while Riya had to stop selling the Nerds Rope after his suppliers told him it had been banned in the UK. Social media ramps up the desirability of certain products, which in turn increases competition. After selling out his initial order of the viral TikTok jelly fruits, Ravat couldn’t get his hands on more (his supplier said ‘there’s a certain ingredient in there you can’t sell’ in the UK, but is unclear whether this is true; since then, copycat products have emerged).
It is possible that in a few months there will be even more sweetshops on Oxford Street – Candy Surprise opened early in 2021, around the same time as DayNight Food&Wine, a neon newsagent that’s foregone British snacks for the American stuff. Despite lockdown and a lack of tourists, the sugar rush continues unimpeded. Perhaps the secret to success is obvious: all-American snacking appeals to tourists and Londoners alike. But even after diving face first into the E numbers, these shops retain an (artificially scented) air of mystery – reminiscent of the very first temple to American sugar on central London soil. For a decade, no Londoner has been able to walk through Leicester Square without muttering, ‘Who goes there? And why?’ at a big, bright, chocolate-scented building. M&M’s World walked so Kingdom of Sweets and all of its competitors and imitators could run.