They’ve been popping up in stations and spreading down high streets; lurid-coloured signs featuring stars and stripes, the word ‘candy’ bearing down in six-foot letters.
American-style confectionery stores have been rapidly gaining ground across the UK with 73 more opening in 2021 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, over the same period, traditional sweet shops have been shuttering; consumer tastes apparently veering towards Jolly Ranchers and Tootsie Rolls instead of rhubarb and custards.
But Britain’s apparent affection for American candy has started to sour: Westminster Council is now investigating more than 30 shops in London’s West End over allegations of business rate evasion, to the tune of at least £7.9 million. The Telegraph understands that the investigations are at an early stage but include the Kingdom of Sweets chain, of which there are 19 in the UK and Europe. In London alone there are 12 US-style stores on the stretch from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road; plus pop-ups across Central London being linked to a long-running tax evasion scheme predominantly run, according to a 2019 Private Eye investigation, by Afghan nationals previously operating in the same way from souvenir shops.
Forget the traditional sweet purveyor with ye olde jars of sugar-coated candies and pink-and-white-striped paper bags; this new breed of shops typically has nightclub-style music blaring and air con pumping, boxes of Pop Tarts and Twinkies and Twizzlers covering shelves, floor to ceiling. Yet the public’s seemingly unquenchable desire for cookie dough treats seems to have disappeared once you step inside: most stores remain empty, with staff in some of the larger outposts outnumbering the odd roaming tourist by four to one.
Perhaps that’s down to the prices – in the shops that actually print them. Most don’t, but those that do seem to have primarily settled on a seemingly arbitrary price of £8.99 across hundreds of products (including Pop Tarts, which are available in Sainsbury’s for £3.30).
Or it could be the dizzying market over-saturation: with often just a few feet between American Candy, Candylicious, Candy and Candy World stores, how to choose between them?
The origins of this sweet explosion begin in two places, depending who you ask. Some lay the blame at the door of Kingdom of Sweets, whose first outpost was launched by Chase Manders in Bury, Manchester, in 2006. Others say it is the work of pop-up chancers throwing a banner over the frontage of an empty store, hauling in a load of top-price treats and hoping the novelty factor will divert attention from the fact that many open and dissolve their businesses in a matter of months, before filing any accounts.
Westminster Council has pledged a crackdown on the “growing problem of candy and poor quality souvenir shops” in its jurisdiction, which they understand “are far from regular and legitimate businesses, with very few serving sufficient customers to be commercially viable.” The problem isn’t limited to the capital, however. Elsewhere, in one city centre, a local business owner told me that the three candy shops on two streets (one of which recently shuttered) are believed to be run by two families – the head of whom periodically turns up in “a mafia staff car”.
The companies take advantage of the short leases being handed out by councils trying to boost struggling high streets, the owner says, noting that US candy stores “sprung up around the same time that a lot of gift shops did… the candy stores and gift shops often seem to be run by the same people”.
The ubiquitous souvenirs haven’t vanished completely in these candy stores either; Big Ben snow globes and commemorative mugs from the Sussexes’ wedding can still be found behind the rows of Hostess Cupcakes.
A 25-year-old manager at one such store, which currently has 32 branches, says the company is a partnership of three businessmen; two of whom are in the UK, the other in Pakistan. Inside the shop (which, unlike many others, has no throbbing soundtrack, just a busker crucifying Ed Sheeran outside), I ask whether he has heard the claims being levelled at his London counterparts. “I’ve not heard anything about money laundering,” he says. “But I can say that [the shops] are expensive.”
No matter: trade from schoolchildren is so brisk at weekends, he adds, that “we don’t have time to go for lunch.” On the Friday I visit, a few tourists amble in, fewer still actually buy anything. After 20 minutes, by which point the busker has cycled through Westlife, Bryan Adams and Bruno Mars, a bag of Takis crisps and a can of soda have been shifted. “It is a very expensive store, to be honest,” he says. “But still, people like it. And we are making good money out of it.”
Hardy’s – among the bigger traditional English sweet shop chains – used to be a fixture in several city centres, but the company was dissolved last year, its 12 stores among the 1,390 to have closed in the UK since 2016. Graham MacDonald, who runs chocolatier Wicked and iScream gelato in Oxford’s covered market, says the glut of store closures in the city means he “would rather have a shop selling candy – albeit American candy – than an empty shop”, adding: “To be frank, if they can make a business out of it, then they’re welcome.”
The Government is currently considering proposals to force shop owners to rent out empty stores left vacant in a bid to revive flagging city centres, where one in seven shop fronts are boarded up. Some fear this will only exacerbate the problem: more twentysomethings arriving with their exports (from a country they’ve never set foot in) being encouraged to sign short leases, no questions asked.
Alan Wiggett, managing director of Kingdom of Sweets, says that such stores “are operated by a bunch of cowboys” and “have damaged our business. We are passionate about what we do and the service we provide and are here for the long term, not just for a few months.” Following a report last week implicating their chain in investigations being conducted by Westminster Council, a spokesman said: “We are a respectable business paying all relevant taxes and business rates. The issue of rival stores opening and then closing without paying business rates has had a detrimental impact on our trading in an extremely difficult environment. As a responsible business we support plans to clamp down on this practice and will continue working with Westminster Council.”
Manders’ stores have inadvertently provided the blueprint for copycat businesses. Kingdom of Sweets was the first sweetshop to open on Oxford Street in 2018, Wiggett says – and employees soon began to notice people coming “into our stores and [taking] photographs... This is happening not just in London but in Liverpool, York, Cambridge and Edinburgh, where other American sweets stores have popped up in temporary shops and copied our format”. One business so closely copied their signage that lawyers had to get involved.
There may have been more nefarious aims afoot than simply copying a candy business. Still, Kingdom of Sweets has had trouble of its own before now: Manders has set up a series of companies in the past decade that have gone bust to the tune of millions owed to creditors and local councils. Mr Wiggett did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.
As far as the sweets themselves go, Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe is the last chain leading the charge for old skool toffees and sherbet lemons, with a few independents scattered across the UK holding the hard-boiled fort, too. At the York Sweet Shop, founded in 1911, the “fad” for American-style stores – of which several have already opened and closed in the city centre – won’t outlast the core customer base still seeking English treats, according to Arthur Smith, one of its employees.
“There will always be appetite” for traditional confectionery, he says. And such shops will always retain an edge over many of their new rivals: that they actually seek to sell the sweets on their shelves.