According to Jenna Keys, the origin story of her Oakland-based artisan candy company is very much a “typical foodie story.” For Keys, making candy was a longtime hobby, not a professional aspiration. But when she made batches of alcohol-spiked marshmallows for family a couple of Christmases ago, her treats were such a hit that she began getting requests from friends and bringing her creations to parties.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the rest is history but, just seven months into business, Sugar Knife is the sweet-talk of the town. Keys and her fiancé/business partner, Josh Gillespie, are finding that the demand for their booze-spiked marshmallows and brittle is now higher than two people can hope to meet, even working overtime.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been absolutely whirlwind,” Keys said. “You can’t read enough books or enough experiences on blogs to prepare you for creating a small foodie business.”
Sugar Knife’s basic mission is to marry sugar and booze. That mission is manifested in artisanal, small-batch marshmallows and brittle made by hand with all-natural ingredients, and with an array of mouth-watering ingredient combinations fit for any gourmand. Marshmallow flavors, for example, include “Black Irish,” made of Guinness stout, chocolate, and chocolate-covered pretzels and the cheekily-named “You Fancy, Huh?”, made of strawberries and champagne, all priced at $7 for a half-dozen or $12 for a dozen.
Brittle options include “The Filthy Pig,” an understandably popular brittle made with Bulleit bourbon, bacon and pecans; “Blonde at the Bar,” made with Blue Moon beer, almonds and orange zest; and a Makers Mark-cranberry-almond brittle called “Bourbonberry,” all at $6-7 for a two-ounce bag.
Sugar and booze. Happily married, with just a little bit of a nutty dark side to their union.
“We’re trying to create an urban candy store with an edge,” Keys said. “From the beginning, I had an idea of how I wanted this [business] to look. There’s no shortage of candy companies, but they all sort of have this same baby-shower-ish look with bows and frills, and that was neither us as people nor us as a company.”
Keys says that they draw inspiration for their candy flavors and monikers from a wide variety of sources. The “Cookies and C.R.E.A.M.” marshmallow owes its name to Keys’ and Gillespie’s love for the Wu Tang Clan. The “Lemonage à Trois” marshmallow was created out of a trip to Sorrento, Italy, the birthplace of the Limoncello that they incorporated into the lemon-flavored puff.
You’ll find homages to Oakland, too, in marshmallows called “Town Biz” and “Hella Frangelica.” An Oakland-inspired pistachio-and-amaretto marshmallow creation was born after Keys and Gillespie got stopped by a sideshow outside of the Oakland Coliseum while trying to get home from a Warriors game.
“I had a bag of pistachios that I had smuggled successfully into the Coliseum that we never got to eat, so we basically just sat back and cracked our pistachios and watched [the sideshow],” Keys said. “It was such a quintessential Oakland moment, and when it came time to name the marshmallow, it was obviously ‘Ghostride the Whip.’”
Currently Sugar Knife makes its treats available via their online store and at select Oakland retailers. Keys and Gillespie have found themselves shipping orders everywhere from Australia to Slovakia, have created a custom flavor for a Vegas showgirl’s retirement party, and have hosted a make-your-own s’mores bar for First Friday at Uptown Kitchen. And, just recently, Sugar Knife has teamed up with famed local chocolatier Michael Mischer to offer chocolate-dipped treats.
Where you come in: Find a way to enjoy these pillowy, silky sweet treats at their finest. One of Sugar Knife’s serving suggestions for their “Apple Pie” marshmallow is to eat it hot off of the campfire between two oatmeal cookies. Or try a gourmet s’more incorporating marshmallow, graham cracker and bacon.
However you do it, make sure you do it with a side of booze.
Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.