Courtesy of Jacob Cramer
Before I knew the words “return offer” and “cover letter,” summer was my favorite time of year. There’s no feeling that can match the freedom of unfettered toes wiggling in Adidas slides or not having a long list of references to cite in APA style for an essay. Even in the days when we’d have summer homework, it could be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. The summer before fourth grade, I learned cursive while reclining in a green Step2 wagon in my driveway with a pencil in my right hand, a Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters in my left.
This summer, however, I think I’m going to be empty-handed. I don’t have a concrete plan, and as a rising senior, it’s particularly nerve-racking. But a conversation with one business owner helped me spin my summer job anxieties into something sweeter. She’s the reason that I’m thinking about cotton candy during reading week instead of finals and summer plans.
Emily Harpel owns Art of Sucre (pronounced soo-cra), a gourmet cotton candy company in Fairlawn, Ohio. The company sells packaged cotton candy in sophisticated flavors like “orange bourbon” and “piña colada” and glitter bombs — cotton candy wrapped around edible glitter that dissolves and shimmers when dropped in liquid. Over the past five years, she’s built a bustling business that boasts 1.1 million TikTok followers and has catered for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott.
I first spotted Emily on my For You page during the Ratatouille the Musical era. She was spinning a cone of crème brûlée flavored cotton candy, which she dubbed “Remy the crème brûlée of my dreams” and topped with a rat cut-out. Intrigued by her decision to associate her product with a rodent that would rouse any health inspector, I explored her page further. In one video, she shared her least favorite job in the cotton candy studio, heat-sealing cotton candy pouches. In another, she masterfully spun cotton candy in the shape of a duck. I’d never seen anything like it. I wondered if she could teach me ‘how to spin the perfect cotton candy at home’ so I could share her advice in a YDN article to encourage Yalies to bring back a sweet treat that has been lost to the pandemic.
A few years ago, I nearly burnt my house down after spooning sugar into a countertop cotton candy machine. At the very least, maybe she could tell me what I did wrong, so I reached out.
She advised, “Making cotton candy is simple, but those machines are a legitimate fire hazard. It’s bad.”
She didn’t have much else to say about making it — apparently, cotton candy is literally just sugar, and anyone can do it with a low-grade commercial machine. Honestly, I was surprised it’s so easy, though I swear there’s something she didn’t tell me. Still doubting my skills, I admitted I probably wouldn’t be going into her industry. Besides, I’m a psychology major.
Turns out, she was too. I never thought I would get amazing career advice from a psychology major turned cotton candy business owner (let alone talk to one?), but her story immediately inspired me.
As Emily was wrapping up her undergraduate degree with plans to eventually open her own counseling practice, the graduate program she’d been banking on called her and let her know that her cohort had been filled before they reviewed her application.
“Suddenly I had a bachelors in psych and was engaged to my then-fiance now-husband Drew, and was planning our wedding,” she said. “Through that process, I had really nothing going on.”
While we don’t share an aptitude for dessert-making, Emily’s story of ‘nothing going on’ resonates with me. It might sound strange to say that this summer I want to be like her – no plans, plenty of free time — but I would. Emily used her spare time to make something unique. After seeing cotton candy party favors on Pinterest, she realized she could give the treat a chic upgrade.
“You see these beautiful sugar cookies or cake pops or desserts in the events space that are too beautiful to eat, but cotton candy was still pink and blue and you weren’t really sure what flavor they were,” she said. “You just knew them by color.”
Emily got married in March of 2016, and by the end of May, she had her own LLC. Since then, her clients have helped her maintain the creativity that started it all.
“I had a random man reach out to me for his daughter’s bat mitzvah,” she said. “He had an idea to have mannequin heads topped with cotton candy as hair to be served as dessert to the kids, passed out on silver platters. He goes, ‘Can you do this?’ and I go, ‘No, but I’ll figure it out.’”
Emily purchased 12 heads and spent hours drilling into them, inserting PVC pipes and practicing for speed so the cotton candy wouldn’t deflate. The concept was so popular that she has replicated it at other events, often adding cotton candy rosettes and glitter to her imitation beehive wigs.
That willingness to explore new ideas has helped her business thrive. After receiving TikToks from her niece for months, she created her own account, @artofsucre. Now, according to Emily, around 95 percent of the business’ orders are from locals who discover her on the app.
“You just have to do it, even if it seems embarrassing,” she said. “TikTok is a great example of that. I’m 28, and when I started it, I was like, ‘I’m too old for this,’ but that attitude isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
Everything Emily was sharing sounded magical. A carefree summer that leads to making money from cotton candy wigs and TikTok? Sign me up!
Of course, running a business requires grit. Between meeting the needs of clients and getting her packaging down for the launch of her online shop, being a small business owner has had its difficulties. She said that if Art of Sucre had not worked out, she would have reapplied to grad school or considered event planning.
“In life, but especially in business, you have to learn to pivot,” she said.
Emily recently expanded her studio space and said she is almost ready to hire her first full-time employee. In the future, she hopes to expand her product line, advocate for a cotton candy emoji and support local charities with product donations.
“While what I do is not open heart surgery and most people would say that it’s not overwhelmingly important or essential, and I can totally agree with that, there’s something profound and special about being able to bring back a childhood memory or happiness through something so small or so sweet,” she said.
I have no plans to follow suit and style cotton candy hair-dos on mannequin heads – I was told it takes 45 minutes just for two. Nonetheless, Emily’s drive, ingenuity, and resilience inspire me, and I think I’m going to let this summer happen as it will. Like Emily, I’m choosing to savor every day’s sweetness.
“Challenges are going to come, they’re always going to come, but it’s how you handle them that makes a difference,” she said.
Given my past experience, I’ll leave preparing handspun confections to Emily. Instead, I’ll prepare myself for an equally-daunting task: final exams. And then, I’ll enjoy my summer as we all should.
Jacob Cramer | firstname.lastname@example.org