Emily Harpel of Art of Sucre
Inspiration can strike at any moment, especially when Pinterest is involved. How many things have you seen on Pinterest that made you think, “I can do that?” Emily Harpel knows a thing or two about that! A photo on Pinterest of cotton candy wedding favors got Emily thinking as she planned her own wedding. By the time her honeymoon was over she was ready to start her own business, and slowly but surely, Art of Sucre was born. Read on to learn more about this crazy cotton candy business, and how weddings aren’t even at the top of Emily’s list of clients. Plus, she might have witnessed someone's hair catch on fire, but you’ll have to read more to learn about that.
Haley Mills: What were you doing before you started Art of Sucre*?
*Note, its pronounce suc-ra”
Emily Harpel: I was actually a college student, so I started Sucre right after college. I was an event planner, actually, and I worked at a church. I did weddings and big-scale community events, and I also helped with their children’s program. But I’ve never had a typical 9-to-5; so I was pretty young when I started.
HM: That’s awesome! So how did the idea come about?
EH: So right around that time, I just graduated college, I was engaged and planning my wedding. I was on Pinterest and saw these really cute cotton candy favors. I didn’t really think anything of it, they were just cute and I liked them. I don’t even like cotton candy, so I didn’t really want them at my wedding, but, I just thought they were adorable. I was in the process of applying to grad school and they didn’t even reach my application because they filled the cohort before they even hit my application. So I had no plans the following fall and I was on my way back, actually, from my honeymoon. I looked at my husband and was like, “Um, I think I want to start a cotton candy company.” He was like, “Oh okay.” We got married in March and then by the end of May, early June I had my LLC and we got started from there.
HM: How did you get started and find people that were interested in what you were doing?
EH:I was slow to start but on purpose. I had the business and the idea and everything but I didn’t take any events until that August. I didn’t accept any paying events until the following January. I was intentional about being very slow while I got everything together. It was kind of weird; I did an event, a bridal show, that October, and from there, I didn’t book any weddings, which was fine. But all of the vendors saw me and they started hiring me, The Dress in Medina was my first ever paying gig. In April I did their 7th anniversary, and from being on their social media, it was just a very slow grow. I had two events my very first day out. A family friend paid me for their son’s first communion and then I did The Dress. With social media, it was super organic and super grass roots that way. Messaging people and getting more comfortable and getting seen more and more. I’ve never paid for marketing, it’s always been through social media.
HM: That’s an awesome way to start a business. What is the biggest challenge of running your own small business?
EH: Oh my goodness. My biggest headache is definitely the health department! But overall I think the biggest challenge at least right now in this season of life is definitely a work-life balance. It is 24/7- if I'm not on my phone doing social media or answering emails or meeting with clients and doing tastings, I’m at events. It is hard to try to find that balance. I’m working on it and hiring more and more employees and training more people but it’s a struggle. And it’s a struggle to let go of that control a little bit. Because it is my baby, so that is hard.
HM: How many employees do you have?
EH: So as of right now I have 8 people trained and we have 4 carts. Some events require 2 people, and it’s weekends and nights so it depends on their flexibility. I’m hiring 2 more to start kind of like mid-July, so that will help because event season right now is just crazy.
HM: What are the majority of the events that you’re going to?
EH: It varies. I always tell people that my main category is corporate. I do a lot of stuff with big companies. I do a lot with the Cavs or the Browns and Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in general. I think it's cool but it's surprising to people because they think that I do mainly weddings and that's probably the smallest category. I do weddings, I happen to have three weddings this weekend, but that’s just a coincidence. I also work a lot with other small businesses. So today thats why I'm covered in cotton candy; I just came from a yoga studio opening in Cuyahoga Falls. It really varies, but that’s probably the biggest category.
HM: How do you come up the flavors?
EH: I make all of my own bases. All of the flavors are done in house, we have recipes for everything. It didn't start out that way, I started purchasing base but it became too expensive, and they didn’t have what I wanted. I really wanted the experience to be super customizable. I wanted clients to be able to come to me and say, I really love Apple Pie, can you do an Apple Pie flavor in Yellow, or whatever color and in the beginning, I wasn’t able to do that, but now I am. Honestly, most of the flavor suggestions come from friends and family that are like, “hey have you tried this?” Sometimes, I’m at events and people that are at the events will be like, “hey do you have this flavor?” One of the coolest things that happened was that I was at an event with Stella & Shay. They had me come out for one of their employee parties and I had peach and champagne as the two flavors. One of their employees asked if I could mix them, and we decided it tasted like a Bellini. That has been our most popular flavor combination from that day on!
HM: What would you say has been your biggest success in the last year?
EH: I can think of two things. Last fall, the Cavs head event planner found me. After I realized weddings were not the end all be all, I really wanted to move into the corporate world. That was a slow process to get there, but I’ve always thought that Cotton Candy was a really good fit for any sporting event. So, when the Cavs finally called me, they happened to see me at The Cleveland Flea, and told me they wanted me for opening night, I freaked out. I had been dreaming of that for so long. That had a domino effect, I started working with the Browns and now I’m doing an MLB event this summer for All-Star Week. Coming up this summer I’m partnering with Pickwick and Frolic but more specifically, Chandon, the champagne company. They are releasing a new champagne in aluminum cans and they will be selling them by the bucket at Pickwick and Frolic so we are pairing my champagne & orange bourbon cotton candy with the buckets, when you purchase the buckets you get the cotton candy so you can put it in the champagne and watch it dissolve. That was also very exciting, because it’s a national brand.
HM: Is there anything else you want people to know about your business?
EH: I think it’s a misconception that all we do is cart service. That is definitely our bigger category or service that we offer, but we really fit into everybody's budgets, because we have pre-spun favors that start at $3 that you can come to pick up at our studio space in Fairlawn. Or you can order mannequins heads that cost a lot more. I love when people bring projects to me. If you have a custom, crazy idea, 9 times out of 10 I’m probably going to say yes to you and figure it out from there. It’s a whole experience.
HM: What is your favorite Cleveland event?
EH: That is so hard. I feel like because I don’t live in Cleveland, which people assume I do, I can’t pick east side/west side, I can’t show allegiance to either side! This may be a cliche answer, but one of my favorite things to do is go walk around The Cleveland Flea, not as a vendor, just as a consumer, to check out what's new, see everyone that I know and see the small business at its hub doing what it does. Seeing people support it and what that actually means, is one of the favorite things to do.
HM: What is your favorite restaurant?
EH: We, for my Birthday actually in May, went to Luxe and had dinner and it was probably the best meal I’ve had in a very long time. This is a really crazy story, but I had a surprise 30th birthday party that I was working there, and a guests hair caught on fire!
EH: So, they were all crowded around the door to surprise the birthday girl and there were votive candles around and she turned her hair when someone called her name. Her hair flew, and it was just like “whoosh”, but thankfully she didn’t even know what happen she ended up unintentionally smothering the fire out. It was crazy to witness.
HM: Where would you say your favorite place to be is?
EH: Hands down, if I could move into Flight Cleveland, I absolutely would. I would just put a little spot for my computer, have a pillow, I would never leave.
HM: I wish she was open all of the time, I’d love to go work there. I interviewed her (read it here), and that was really fun, to learn about how she fell into the idea and how she made it all happen.
EH: She’s done an amazing thing. I just did an event with her a few weeks ago, and I tried to impress upon her, “I don’t think you understand what you’ve done in such a short amount of time.” She opened in January. “This is something special, and how quickly you’ve done it is impressive. The crowd that she draws every night is amazing.”