Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus...
His family thinks he’s just obsessed with jelly beans, but to David Robinson, candy is big business.
In fact, the lucrative practice of serving sweet-toothed mid-Missourians was enough to make the Englishman’s move to the Show- Me State a worthy endeavor—and to launch him into the top realm of sales.
Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
After becoming co-owners of the Mr. Bulky store in Jefferson City’s Capital Mall, David Robinson and his wife, Carol, purchased Mr. Bulky Treats & Gifts at the Columbia Mall about two years ago. Sinking his teeth into the candy business was life changing for Robinson, whose job running a large commercial printing firm in England had been a source of stress.
“I was working too hard, too long. Never saw my children,” Robinson says. His health had begun to deteriorate. Now, though, the 43-year-old says, his health is much better. “My doctor says everyone should buy a candy shop.”
Prior to moving to the states, the Robinsons did a lot of research. Since Carol ran a small candy shop in England, getting into the candy business was an obvious choice. And since Carol had relatives in Jefferson City—Cathy and Scott Stephens, who co-own the Capital Mall Mr. Bulky—the geographic options were narrowed easily. For help buying the business, the couple worked with Jeff Guinn of LGI Business Brokers, who also gave the family information on area schools and communities. Robinson says Columbia came out ahead because the city has made national magazines’ lists of the best places to live.
“We looked all over Missouri. We’ve never regretted a minute being in Columbia,” David Robinson says. “People are friendly, and the town is nice and cosmopolitan.”
Kid in a Candy Shop
The original plan called for the newly retired Robinson to be a hands-off owner, but he quickly became immersed in the business. He and his wife run the shops, with help from four employees in Columbia and four in Jefferson City.
“In the end, I love it,” he admits. “I really do.”
Part of that love has to do with jelly beans. A lot of jelly beans. The Robinsons sell 3,000 pounds of Jelly Belly candy a month. According to David Snyder, Jelly Belly Candy Company’s Midwest regional business manager, the Mr. Bulky in Columbia is the largest single-store Jelly Belly retailer in the Midwest territory, an area covering 19 states.
Mr. Bulky carries 72 varieties of Jelly Bellies, and buttered popcorn is the most popular, followed by licorice. The flavors of the colorful beans range from strange (jalapeno, baked bean, cotton candy) to standard (raspberry, blueberry). The latest flavor to hit the bins is dark chocolate. About every six months, a new flavor comes out.
Robinson says that after two months in the business, the couple realized the need to find a niche in the market. They contacted Jelly Belly and said that if the company supplied their store directly, they’d increase sales by 100 percent. Within three months, sales had increased by 300 percent.
“His biggest reason for success is his passion for the business and his understanding of brand strength,” Snyder says about Robinson. “When you look at a lot of mall candy locations, you will find them looking to go ‘cheap’ with lesser-quality candy products. David uses quality products in his whole store—not just Jelly Belly.”
In mid-March, the Columbia Mr. Bulky will move into a new space, adjacent to MC Sports, designed and built by architect Stuart Scroggs and Oklahoma contractor BRV. Store frontage will be tripled, with an all-glass front turning the whole store into a display. The clincher is a G-scale steam train Robinson ordered from Germany. It will travel a 250-foot loop, running above the store, out through the front header into the mall and back into the store.
“Remember we’re a candy store. It should be fun,” Robinson points out. “To be honest, this is like playing for me. I just spent $5,000 on a new train to go around the new store. It’s not a chore coming to work. It’s great fun. People like coming in here.”
Mr. Bulky customers can select from about 2,000 different types of candy—from bins of “gummi” candy and hard candy to special chocolates in a glass display case. Chocolatecovered strawberries are big for Valentine’s Day, and at Christmas everything sells. Overall, the store has a two-week merchandise turnover rate, so there’s never a piece of stale candy. Robinson imports English candy, another big seller, and carries Australian licorice— the world’s best, he says.
Robinson says that though most of the customers are impulse buyers, the shop is slowly becoming a destination candy store. People come from out of town to purchase items—especially old-fashioned candy, like Charleston Chews.
Though they share the name, the Robinsons’ stores are not part of the Mr. Bulky chain. The previous owners bought the rights for both stores, so, Robinson says, “I’m completely independent, no franchise at all.” He chose to keep the store’s name following a marketing study performed by University of Missouri scholars Stephanie Bouse, Melissa Hamm, Erika Plumb and Andrea Walck. The study involved determining the optimal location in the mall and assessing the general perception of the store within the community. When the Robinsons move the shop in March, they’ll drop the “Treats & Gifts” and be known as Mr. Bulky. Jelly-bean-shaped floor decals will pave the way from the old store to the new. In Jefferson City, the decals lead from the children’s play area to the store.
As to trends and the future, Robinson doesn’t see much of an impact from a sagging economy or health concerns.
“People will always want to treat themselves, spend a couple of dollars,” he says. “I think the business we’ve got is going to be stable, recession or no recession.” Although he says everybody seems to be more health conscious, he believes everything is all right in moderation. “Most things can be bad for you if you eat a lot of them.” One change Robinson has seen since opening the shop is an increase in sales of sugarfree candy. On the other hand, another trend is a boost in chocolate demand, to which he responded by introducing homemade truffles.
Retirement has never looked so good.
“The crazy thing,” Robinson says, “is two to three years ago, I never imagined doing this.”
Columbia Mall • 2300 Bernadette Drive