Like most of us who were bored out of our minds during the COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020, Nema Causey turned to TikTok. But the stakes were much higher for Causey, whose business, Candy Me Up, sold bulk candy to retail and wholesale clients. As shutdowns lingered, closing candy shops and businesses owned by Causey’s other regular buyers, she had to figure out a way to keep Candy Me Up afloat.
She’d signed up for accounts on Instagram and Facebook, but hadn’t seen enough growth on those platforms to move the needle enough to save her business. “I really was defeated. Shutting down just wasn’t an option,” says Causey, who was born into the candy business — literally. Her father owns one of the largest wholesale candy distribution companies in California, and she’s worked in candy her entire life. “Even though I could’ve just sold everything back to my dad, I didn’t want to do that. So I took my business online.”
Causey’s most successful TikTok videos follow her as she packs old-school candies, like wax bottles filled with sugary juice and vintage candy buttons, into boxes for customers. Her videos also show off new offerings that she eats on camera: Think gummy Nerds clusters and chamoy-drenched dulces enchilados, or Gushers coated in chamoy syrup and rolled in Tajin seasoning. Her account features imported chewy Puchao candies and Pocky sticks from Japan, along with a slew of other Asian candies. There’s also weird stuff — sour candy that you spray in your mouth, candy shaped like unicorn poop, and gigantic gummies, along with nostalgic favorites like fizzy Zots and lemon drops. But Causey’s taste of viral success really began when the jelly fruits trend emerged on TikTok.
In countless videos on the platform, users would eat the jellies — a type of candy sold in fruit-shaped plastic capsules — by popping the capsule with their teeth, causing the jelly to burst in their mouth, often to comedic effect. The hashtag #jellyfruitcandy has racked up more than 27 million views, and for a while Candy Me Up was one of the few places that sold it. “I was the only candy store that was able to get these viral candies, and I sold so many pallets,” Causey says. “Before this, I would never sell one pallet of one single candy — there are thousands of units on one pallet. But I couldn’t keep the jelly fruits in stock.”
The boom in business forced Causey to bring her business into the TikTok era — and fast. Within two weeks, she set up a website to start selling candy online, and now, more than three years later, she spends much of her time making TikTok videos; she now boasts more than 1.1 million followers. “If something goes viral, it can [drive as many] as 10,000 orders,” she says. But it goes both ways: Sometimes, TikTok will futz with the algorithm that displays content to users, and Causey’s business will slump for a few weeks.
Freeze dry a twin snakes gummy with me! We got this at the Sweets and Snacks Expo last year. Who is going this year?! #sweetsandsnacksexpo #thecandycloset #tiktokcandyshop #candy #NextLevelDish #xyzbca #viralcandy #populartiktokcandy #candytok #fypcandy #freezedriedcandy #candyshop #freezedriedcandyshop #freezedried♬ I Think I Like When It Rains - WILLIS
Unlike Causey, Megan Aust and her sister-in-law Liz Aust had no prior experience in the candy business when they decided to open the Candy Closet — just a nostalgic love for sweet treats. They were reminiscing one day about a since-closed candy store in their local mall, and got the idea to try a candy business of their own. “We had a pantry in our childhood home, and we called it the candy closet because there was always a bowl of candy in there,” Megan Aust says. “We always had a sweet tooth.”
The Candy Closet took off pretty quickly on TikTok, but things really exploded when the duo purchased a freeze dryer. Freeze-dried candy, which is often puffier and crunchier than its non-freeze-dried counterparts, has become especially popular on the platform over the last year. When the Austs posted their first video of Skittles going into the freeze dryer in February 2022, they racked up a thousand new followers and hundreds of thousands of views overnight. Now, they have nearly half a million followers on the platform, and are still growing. Freeze-dried Skittles, which they call Fruity Crunchies, are still the company’s top seller, even though the Candy Closet now offers nearly 60 different freeze-dried options for sale on its website.
“People love to watch us load and unload the freeze dryers,” Liz Aust says. “Videos where we crush the candy are also popular, although that’s a mix between people who enjoy it, and people who are upset that we’re wasting candy. What they don’t know is that we actually eat it after filming.”
Why does everyone want to buy candy online? In some ways, the interface of TikTok relies on the same thing that an old-school candy store needs to survive: impulse shoppers. The traditional business model, in which stores sold low-cost candies at high volumes based on retail foot traffic, is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. But candy is still a multi-billion-dollar business, shifting over the past few decades from small shops to the supermarket. “The candy companies have been able to expand into supermarkets, and they have so much volume there,” says Tim Forrest, a food retail consultant who’s worked with major brands like Whole Foods and McDonald’s, along with TikTok upstart Dan-O’s Seasoning. “There’s no opportunity to compete, really, because of the expenses that come with running a candy store.”
According to Forrest’s data, only 3,300 physical candy stores still exist in the United States, and he notes that outside of a few major chains — including See’s Candies, which is still a major player — candy stores are generally concentrated around tourist centers and entertainment venues. But buying candy from a TikTok candy shop is similar to buying a box of Raisinets to snack on when you’re at the movies. “Candy is an impulse purchase, and has traditionally been associated with entertainment,” Forrest says. “TikTok and other platforms provide access to consumers for impulse purchases.” Now that millions of Americans are watching hours of TikTok each day, it’s perhaps not surprising that they’re finding new snacks along the way.
But building an online audience can be tough in a crowded field of retail products — and expensive. That’s where TikTok comes in. “This is a form of entertainment, it’s a form of celebrity,” Forrest says. “They’re competing for attention, they’re not competing with candy stores. You can go to any large gathering of people and sell candy, because people love candy, that probably won’t ever change. But what is changing is how you bring attention and awareness to your product. I think it will be a lot like Facebook, where many businesses found success in the early days, before Facebook made it so expensive for people to advertise there.”
Because Americans love candy — Forrest notes that Americans consume billions of dollars of the sweet stuff every year, and the confectionery market has continued to grow steadily in recent years, even in our wellness-obsessed culture — it’s unlikely that the brick-and-mortar candy store will ever go away. But whether or not TikTok will be where we buy candy in the future remains to be seen. At the very least, it kept Nema Causey’s business from closing during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t concerned about what the future looks like, especially as lawmakers kick around the possibility of a TikTok ban.
“It does freak me out, and make me think that I need to get back into wholesale distribution, which is where you actually make the most money,” Causey says. “But I’ve gotten so used to doing this type of marketing that I feel like I’m a creator now. It’s literally putting food on my table. If that all goes away, I have to start all over again.”
Megan Rizzo is a freelance illustrator currently living and working in Ann Arbor, Michigan.