Vanessa Hughes loves candy. Hers is the sort of passion that can make someone search out a sweet shop while honeymooning in Barcelona, which she did. Her obsession was sparked by her father, and she has since passed it on to her 7-year-old daughter, Bailey.
“I have a lot of childhood memories with candy," Hughes says. "But when my daughter began eating my candy, I started thinking more about what it was made with.”
Hughes and her husband began to look around for “better” candy options, mainly those made with no corn syrup or artificial colors. To their surprise, they found limited options — although they were really good — and they mostly were available online only. So Hughes, who had a bowl of candy on every desk when she worked in daytime television and healthcare marketing communications, suggested to her husband that they open a pop-up candy store that stocked goodies free of artificial flavors and colors, dyes, refined sugars and many common allergens.
At first, the idea seemed to have limited appeal. After all, wasn't candy already inherently unhealthy? But Hughes soon was surprised by the number of health-conscious customers who were eager for classic candy that put an emphasis on natural ingredients.
Hughes' retail shop, A Real Treat Candy Boutique, has been open on Main Street in Santa Monica for just over a year. Launching first as a pop-up in 2013, the shop now sits next to Three Twins ice cream (which boats organic ingredients), a few doors down from the newly opened Bareburger (organic and all-natural burgers) and across the street from Main Squeeze Juice Bar (Pressed Juicery is also a few blocks away).
“Two and a half years ago I thought we were so far ahead of what was happening," Hughes says, "and now it feels like the public consciousness is catching up. Kraft is taking out artificial colors from their mac and cheese. Nestlé is removing vanillin from its chocolate. It’s trickling down."
Hughes' dream had been to own an iconic candy store that allows customers to grab a bag and “pick and mix” their own "better-for-you" candy from bins. She curates her store carefully, focusing on local chocolates and other artisanal sweets and putting the shop's kitchen in the back to work to create their own brand of candy.
“That’s phase two," she says. "We'll be making what we can’t we get, like more variety in saltwater taffy, and our own fudge.”
She adds: "We often hear from customers, 'You have ruined me for the other candy.' We believe using better ingredients leads to a better candy experience, especially with flavor. My favorite candy used to be sour gummy candy. But now I don't enjoy the flavor or texture. I was really surprised that my taste could change that much."
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Hughes is careful to use the words "better candy" rather than “healthy candy.”
"Even with our paleo dark chocolate — which is sweetened with only coconut or maple sugar — we say it is the 'better' or 'cleanest' candy in the shop. We always let customers know that while the candy uses better ingredients, the base of much of our candy is cane sugar and tapioca syrup, which are still both sugars. One of the reasons we chose the name A Real Treat is because we believe it is still just that — a treat."
A Real Treat, 2724 Main St., Santa Monica; (424) 272-5416, arealtreat.com.