Anyone past the age of 40 understands memories of childhood get a little sweeter each year, just as they grow more distant. Thanks to Winter Parkpreneur Rebecca McCamy and her extremely popular ‘Sassafras Sweet Shoppe’, some of those treasured childhood memories need not stay in the past.
If you haven’t heard of Sassafras, might I ask how? Do you leave the house? Seriously. I’m tempted to tell you to stop reading this now and head on over. But, no, please, continue. I’ll tell you more about it, some of what you can look forward to when you get there. Then, yes, sometime soon . . . treat yourself and go. On a weekday. Or EARLY on a weekend. Weekends get crowded. Or just come crowd ready.
Sassafras isn’t your grandfather’s sweet shop. But if he joins you on a visit, he’s likely to find more than a shelf or two to which he’s partial. Take him, take your mom, your kids, take everyone with you and I assure you there will be something which catches their eye, tempts their sweet tooth, stirs a memory, or creates a new one.
That last part – creating new memories – is possibly what put the biggest smile on Rebecca’s face when we talked at Sassafras this week. I was excited about the wide variety of vintage candies you can find at Sassafras. Rebecca, a mom of three, quickly helped me understand that her delightful shop not only stirs old memories, but is now helping to create special new ones.
Winter Parkpreneur Rebecca McCamy and Sassafras Manager Ashley DiMaria smile for the camera. It’s usually for customers, but this time for the camera!
“The older people who come in here are having these great memories of being a child,” she says, “and the kids who are coming in are creating those memories – which is so cool. That’s what I love – I love that we are doing both.” In a world of complexities, Sassafras is a reminder of “simple times, simple joys . . . . things that made you happy”. It’s those unique qualities, an ability to span generations of individuals, which is surely part of Sassafras’ quick success. But there’s not just one thing.
“What’s unique about us,” she explains when discussing the shop’s popularity, “and why we’ve done so well – even in this economy – is anyone can buy something here – young, old, and any price range. Anyone can buy something here.” To that point, I shared a story of the owner of a nearby business who told me he loves to take his kids into Sassafras because they can find something they actually want for a penny. Rebecca says their average total sale is around $3.75. All of this has worked to put 35 in-store birthday parties on their event schedule. They used to shut the doors on Saturday mornings for such an event, but, she explained, people would beat on the door wanting in for a sugary fix. Thus, the back room is now being prepped to become party central. During the parties, kids often want their photos taken on the shops spiral staircase, another wonderful vintage prop.
View to the front of the shop. Something to see . . . . and most to taste . . . . everywhere.
“I grew up outside of Chicago, “she says. “The candy store I grew up going to is still there today. It’s been there . . . I don’t know, 30 or 40 years.” She talks of going there after school, buying candy or soda, now delights in providing the same sort of experience for others in their youth.
I ask about the shop’s specific offerings which may date the furthest back and she immediately names Chocolate Charleston Chews, Mary Janes, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, Clark Bars, Fizzies and something called ‘Sen-Sen’. Rebecca says she knows Sen-Sen – which is, like, uh, you’ll have to taste it yourself – as something her grandparents’ generation used to freshen their breath after enjoying some adult libations, sort of an old school Tic-Tac. She tells stories from her youth on a few, and recalls stories customers have told her, like a woman in her 70s who as a young girl would walk to the local general store for an elderly neighbor. She was told she could use what was left of the two dollars for milk, bread and eggs to buy candy. Not so surprisingly, she’d check out the candy prices first and then plotted how to save on the groceries. The sharing of stories is more common place here than rare, the environment as well as the candy serving as a catalyst, old friends reacquainted again and again.
Sassafras is fun from the moment you enter the door. It sets a tone and a mood for it, delivers. Everything is made FUNctional, even if it hadn’t been before. The things you can’t get rid of integrated, like the large air return pipe over the register which was painted white . . . and then candy-striped “like a peppermint.” Candies of all kinds are set up as if in an old school general store, in vintage wire baskets, on a vintage scale, in glass cookie jars, sitting on a stool. You could visit daily – as I hear some do – and always discover something new, something you hadn’t noticed before, from two foot long gummy worms to a packet of yummy crickets (non-gummy, real ones). Gummy to crunchy and beyond.
Eyesore? Rebecca thought it was. Now? It’s one of the biggest props in the store. Obstacle. Solution.
Rebecca was a stay at home Mom until a few years ago. With her three children in school, she started work “part . . . part-time” at Lily Pulitzer, just around the corner from where her shop is now. It was during that time, she says with her eyes widening to emphasize the moment of discovery, she realized Park Avenue needed a candy store. The fun and colorful wardrobe she amassed at Lily Pulitzer now also works perfectly at Sassafras, with its staple colors of pink, white and red. When I popped in for our chat, I think she felt a bit underdressed in a white shirt and pink pants, so she plucked a floral pink apron with sequins from behind the counter and wore it the rest of the time I was there. “I like to go with the store,” she notes. She was also wearing this great flower, scrunchy-like fabric necklace . . . another non-edible offering in the store. Sassafras isn’t just candy. But the non-candy items often LOOK like the candy, share its personality, and compliment it, like the ‘Slap Watches’ she can’t keep in stock . . . especially in those popular candy color tones.
If you could take the other items at Sassafras and group them, perhaps an appropriate umbrella would be ‘enjoyment’. That fits the whole store, in fact. I’ve been in to visit around ten times and there’s always laughter, the staff is always smiling and interacting with customers. On most visits there’s someone wanting to know about a candy or share a story of their own, catharsis through a sweet tooth shared. This is not candy sold in a stale or carbon-copied environment. This is candy and a store, an environment, as conceived by a candy lover and mother who speaks of offering Winter Park kids a place like she had as a kid. It’s candy as life experience and bridge-builder, a post card from another time, now taking hold in young minds which will only later realize just how special the experiences they are having now will be to them.
At Sassafras prices start at a penny. Yes, a penny.
The eleven year Winter Park resident and Midwest transplant admits as a kid dentists loved her because of her abundant cavities. “Candy bars are my favorites. I’d probably say Heath Bars were my real favorites as a kid.” Now, I tease her about having the keys to the candy store and she admits to eating it every day. Yet, she’s lost 10 pounds in three months without trying. “I eat it all the time, but that’s all I have time to eat. I don’t have time to go get regular food.” We joke then about a new candy diet. I ask what her own kids think of Sassafras, if they get a little attitude about mom and all that candy access. She immediately says no, but, anticipating my surprise, adds, except for her youngest, “he goes to town in here. It’s like his pantry.” Her husband, who has his own Sassafras favorites, was initially concerned how she was going to make money. Now, he can’t believe its success.
I ask what it’s like to see Sassafras become so popular, to see so many of all ages excited about it, how that feels. She immediately responds with “C’mon, really?” noting I’d ventured into the territory of obvious questions. She then adds “I love it. I love that everyone wants to come here. The kids . . . their parents . . .they say get an ‘A’ on a test and come into Sassafras. Do you want a Slurpee at 7 Eleven or Sassafras? Oh, Sassafras!” One customer has even shared how Sassafras has been instrumental in potty-training her daughter, telling her “every time you go on the potty you can go to Sassafras and pick something out. I kid you not!”
Vintage staple Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy weighing in on a vintage scale. Vintage pieces are used throughout the store are used for fixtures and displays.
Where does a candy store with such an appreciation of the past go in the future? The future is uncertain, but obviously sweet. “I don’t know where I want to go yet,” she says. Right now I love that it’s just one little mom & pop shop.” She’s already entertained inquiries about franchising Sassafras throughout Florida, to Minneapolis and even across the pond to London. Her months and months of researching vendors, her desire to find and add new products requested by customers have prompted one vendor to comment that Sassafras has the best selection of any store he’s seen anywhere else across the country.
Right here in Winter Park. Sweet!
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