The title on Jeff Rubin’s business card reads “Chief Gummy Bear.”
What the pink and white card does not say, though, is that Rubin is the founder of one of the largest, fastest-growing specialty candy retailers in the world, IT’SUGAR. It also doesn’t convey how much he changed the world of candy retail, starting the candy department at FAO Schwarz and co-founding Dylan’s Candy Bar.
“Life is sweet,” Rubin says, smiling at his play on words. Dressed today in a simple T-shirt and jeans, the trim, 49-year-old CEO is as unassuming as his business card, and as playful and non-serious as IT’SUGAR.
While IT’SUGAR is stocked with gummies, chocolates and sour candies, the similarities between the store and every other candy store end there. With suggestive names for its products (Camel Balls, Gummy Bear Kegs and Bear Necessities, to name a few) and a gift line that is more reminiscent of products at Spencer’s than Toys R Us, it is definitely not targeted at kids. To Rubin, IT’SUGAR is more like the Victoria’s Secret of candy.
“I think Victoria’s Secret to me is one of those rare mass-but-cool stores. There’s not a mall in the country without a Victoria’s Secret,” he says. “I think [IT’SUGAR] can be mass, but yet be very cool.”
He seems to be on to something. IT’SUGAR’s growth in recent years has gone like this: The chain will finish 2013 with 60 stores – and it started the year with 30. It started the previous year with 15. At this rate, Rubin says, they’ll have more than 100 stores next year – and that’s only the beginning.
“What people appreciate about IT’SUGAR – the name on the door says it all. It doesn’t disguise it’s sugar,” he says. “Not only do we not hide it, we flaunt it.”
It’s true – some of the candy wrappers even read “100 percent gluten” and “extra fat.”
Rubin gets serious for a minute, reflecting, “From a business standpoint, I think it’s really cool that a company has entered an expansion era in a great recession, employs 700 people in the country, 100-plus in Florida, is expanding, creating jobs, hopefully one day goes public. There are not a lot of retail names in Florida that have gone national.”
And probably not a lot that will top $60 million in sales this year, like IT’SUGAR will.
Rubin’s entrepreneurial career had an early start. In grade school, he bought Bazooka gum and Tootsie Pops for three cents a piece and then sold them for a dime each during recess. Rubin began his professional career in his family’s candy business, Bulk Candy Stores. In 1995, shortly after moving to Boca with his wife and twin boys, he spent three months trying to pitch a candy concept to FAO Schwarz, which then only sold toys. Finally, he scored a 15-minute meeting with the CEO.
“I went in there and let it fly,” Rubin says. So many people walked out of FAO Schwarz without a bag, he pointed out during his meeting – why not stock something anyone could buy, like candy?
The 15-minute meeting turned into four hours, and FAO Schweetz – what Rubin calls his first big break – was born. He soon had a reputation in the candy world. The Toys R Us Times Square flagship called; he helped the company create a candy concept at its store. Hershey’s called; he helped the brand open a flagship in Times Square. In 2001, he co-founded Dylan’s Candy Bar with Ralph Lauren’s daughter Dylan.
By 2006, Rubin saw that the country was missing a mass specialty candy chain and set out to fill that void with IT’SUGAR. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, he spends his days in an office filled with candy, enough so that he always brings some to his dentist when he visits.
He says he does try to work out on weekends, and that a healthy balance of sugar and exercise is important – in that order, of course. At the end of the day, Rubin believes his company is so honest about what it sells there is no reason to feel guilty about a little candy indulgence.
“You know you want it,” he says. After all, it’s sugar.