By Allison Campbell, APR, CPRC (Twitter: @AlliC04) – Ocala Chapter
Since 2013, CNBC’s The Profit television show has featured struggling small businesses in search of a lifeline. Four years ago, Jacksonville’s own Sweet Pete’s candy company found itself in need of a boost to get it to the next level, and that’s just what legendary financier Marcus Lemonis gave them.
A Sunday treat of the Florida Public Relations Association’s (FPRA) Annual Conference is the Student Field Trip, offered free to students registered for the conference. With the conference in the Jacksonville area, Sweet Pete’s graciously offered to share a behind-the-scenes tour for FPRA students.
Sweet Pete’s Peter Behringer grew up in the chocolate business with his mother’s successful Peterbrooke® chocolates, which at one time had expanded to more than 30 locations. Peter has always been passionate about making candy and chocolates to bring joy to others, so in 2010, he and his wife, Allison, decided to separate from Peterbrooke®to start their own concept. With their final $10,000 and a dream, they opened Sweet Pete’s in a historic home in the Springfield section of a Jacksonville. Always using all-natural ingredients with vegan friendly and gluten free options, they built a niche market without making much money… until The Profit.
In 2014, on a whim, Allison decided to email the show. Within two days, she received a phone call while driving with their only other chocolatier, Dee. With advice from Allison’s best friend who works in the PR business, they planned their Skype interview with The Profit. The advice centered on a few things, namely that everything mattered including the backdrop, so they chose to Skype in front of a glittery fireplace in their whimsical shop. Their timing was perfect as The Profit needed just one more location for their upcoming season and Sweet Pete’s met the criteria:
- Location in Florida between Brunswick, GA and South Florida
- A candy shop with gluten-free options (since Marcus is)
- A business in true need with a lot of potential
It ended up being a perfect match! It only took a week after the Skype interview to hear a “yes!”
In the show, Marcus Lemonis agrees to invest $750,000 for 50 percent control of the business. With an already established logo created by an original graphic design partner, Marcus added the caricature of Peter complete with his “mad scientist” lab coat and bushy hair.
Allison says Marcus’ strength is in seeing through the day-to-day minutiae and identifying long-term opportunities. Since the initial investment, he’s put about $3 million into the company including moving them into a completely renovated 23,000 square foot, three-story home that dates back to 1903. You can learn more about The Profit meets Sweet Pete’s here.
Each room in their confectionary emporium has a different theme and concept. Allison says the design was a mixture of Gone with the Windmeets Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. “We wanted it to be something different around each corner,” she said.
Our tour started on the first floor, where we were asked to fill out cards for custom-made chocolate bars. We could choose milk or dark chocolate and all sorts of add-ons including: a choice of nuts, salted caramel, gummy bears, marshmallows, toasted coconut, even Pop Rocks! At the end of our tour, our candy bar creations were waiting for pick-up (and were amazing!).
We met Allison on the first floor in the same chocolate candy room where most of the purchases occur. The chocolate cases feature everything from truffles and chocolate-covered cherries to white chocolate-dipped Cape Cod potato chips. Many of their items are gluten free, and they are vegan friendly. One of our students is vegan and was pleased with many of her purchases!
We sampled the top seller, Pete’s Famous Sea Salt Caramels (yes, nearly all of us bought some on our way out!). We learned that they sell these little clear plastic cubes of different types of candy that Peter has hand selected, and they recently created new unique packaging. It’s a red foldout gift box designed by Marcus’ team. The boxes can hold as many as eight of the little cubes and make a great gift!
Also on the first floor is a restaurant that is not a part of Sweet Pete’s but makes a great tenant and compliments their business nicely. The house was bustling with activity with many people eating during our tour. They also had three birthday parties and an ice cream social going on, all on this Sunday afternoon in July.
Our next stop was upstairs where we met Pete. We were overlooking the “end room” as he said we were doing things in reverse. He showed us from up above, the machines that have helped them grow. The one machine dates back to the 60s and is no longer produced but has been completely remade with all new parts. That one red machine (pictured to the left below) has allowed them to go from having six people hand-wrapping caramels all day to the machine wrapping 100 per minute.
Also in that room is their own label maker where they create all of their custom labels in-house. It can die-cut to any shape or size within 15 minutes which saves them tons of time and resources to be able to do it all in house. All of the scrolls of different labels are lined up on the back wall.
We then went downstairs where we could see the chocolate machines! We donned red hairnets for the sneak peaks behind the scenes.
Pete explained about the cold and hot tables that are necessary for making and molding different kinds of hard candies. They also have classes where they teach how to make candy, which composes 35 percent of their sales. They teach how to make all sorts of candies from gummies to candy canes, lollipops to cotton candy and even smashing pumpkins around Halloween.
When they applied for The Profit, they had six employees and most were part-time. After the show, they grew up to 100 at one time but have 55 employees now including a one-person marketing department. They prefer having in-house marketing as opposed to agencies and are fortunate to know most of the Jacksonville media market to pitch their own stories. Their social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest) are all currently run by their marketing director. It’s not a full-time job, so an intern might be welcome. Allison was definitely open for suggestions from our PR students.
Several of Marcus Lemonis’s businesses cross-promote and work together. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour has space on the second floor of Sweet Pete’s, and we spotted Key West Key Lime Pie for sale in one of the coolers. Allison explains that Marcus’s business model has changed over the four years they’ve worked together. It is now broken down into four silos – the restaurant division, manufacturing, fashion and sweets, where they fit.
They said franchising their business would be tough and isn’t a big interest of theirs. They really want to grow more corporately rather than the franchise approach that Peterbrookes took years ago.
As we wrapped up our tour, we traveled back up to the second floor, where the classroom space is located. We learned that just last night, they even hosted a wedding reception with their tenant neighbor restaurant serving as the caterer. We also learned that nine months ago, they converted the third floor into a toy store, “Pete’s Over the Top Toy Shop.” Allison said they knew they wanted their toy area to be interactive, and each room does look very different, offering children free play areas.
They are still trying to figure out what sells in toys and what doesn’t, but they know their top sellers are the books that feature a plush toy character… oh and slime! They are about to head into their first holiday toy season, so they are excited to see how that goes.
The students attending were highly engaged and interested in the storylines at Sweet Pete’s. Brianna Moss, sophomore at the University of North Florida said, “It was so interesting to see how far they’ve come since The Profit.” While Krista Kihlander, senior at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) added, “It’s hard to believe there are only 55 employees. It felt like such a family.” With all of their processes and concepts, Monica McShaffrey, senior at Florida State University, did feel it operated like a big business, “even though it is just a ‘small business.’”
Baylie Chestnut, freshman at the College of Central Florida added how she liked to see everything being made in front of her. (which was a plus that Marcus Lemonis found as well!) She also added, “I’m glad they don’t want to franchise, because they might lose some of that family feel.”
“This really has become a tourist attraction that people want to visit,” said Brooke Cutchen, senior from FGCU. We couldn’t agree more. At Sweet Pete’s there are lots of things to do, and it offers the opportunity to bring the joyful little child in all of us!
FPRA is so grateful to Peter and Allison Behringer for opening up Sweet Pete’s for this amazing behind-the-scenes tour. We can’t wait until we can come back and experience even more of Sweet Pete’s sugary goodness!