Jason Lewis of Lollyphile currently sells two kinds of lollypops: maple bacon and absinthe. How did he end up with those flavors, and why lollypops? Jason tells all in a candid and fun joy ride into the world of candy making.
One random commenter on this post will win a box of Lollyphile lollypops! I will draw the winner on Thursday, September 18th.
Update: The winner of one box of Lollyphile lollypops is Toontz from Okara Mountain • Okara recipes, vegetarian recipes!
Do you want the real version or the marketing version? The real version is more fun.
About two years ago, I started making my own absinthe because it was illegal and kind of fun. Then, some friends of mine up in Seattle started an illegal speakeasy where they had actual in-house gambling and a dress code (you had to wear 1920’s-style clothes or they wouldn’t let you in). They served liquor at all hours and the guy at the coat check was selling pot. It was a totally amazing speakeasy!
My friend came to visit and he was like, "Oh absinthe, can we buy from you?" So, I was like, "Sweet!" I was selling cases of absinthe, just scads of it. Wow, I shouldn’t be telling you this. They [the speakeasy] got busted, because that’s what’s going to happen. Suddenly, I was left with cases of absinthe at my house, which is just an obscene about of absinthe for one person to have. I didn’t know what to do with all of it.
Then, Halloween came around and I’m kind of crafty. So, I made it into lollypops to pass out to my friends. I throw events sometimes. I think about a third of my friend group are all French immigrants and they went nuts for them and loved them. Then, I started selling them at warehouse parties and art shows and stuff around town and people were buying them. That was fun.
Miette is a super fancy candy store here that literally has gumdrop trees. They’re wonderful! In fact, if Miette and Lollyphile were people, Lollyphile would have a huge crush on Miette, but would be kind of embarrassed to ask her on a date. Miette asked, "Can I try a few cases of this?" I was like, "Cool, totally! A retail store wants to carry me, that’s fun."
Then, I threw up a website that just sold those. It was an ugly-ass little website. I was doing it for a class project. That started doing really well. Then, what happened was I kept getting these phone calls from people like 16 year olds in Texas where they would be like, "If I buy some lollypops from you now, would there be any way I could get them in like two days and how fucked up would I be?" I had to explain that, one, you don’t hallucinate from absinthe and two, if you are going to be eating something that makes you hallucinate, you probably want to pay more than two bucks for it. It’s a you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of situation.
Then, I realized that I had to have something else that was not liquor-based or psychotropically-based. So, I thought of bacon - that’s fun, right? Then, I figured out how to do the bacon and I kind of test marketed it at a R. Kelly sing-a-long night. I was passing them out to strangers at this R. Kelly thing and then the next day, on my Yelp page, this one girl had written a 10 stanza poem about the maple bacon lollypops. So, they did well.
Then, Lollyphile got picked up by Daily Candy and I went from being a full-time marketing whore to a full-time confectionery pretty much in the course of three days. Now, that’s what I do.
How did you get interested in making absinthe in the first place?
I went to Burning Man a bunch of times and then one of the camps was just an absinthe camp and they made all these different kinds of absinthe. I was like, "You make this, that’s crazy!" I found a few different recipes and some of them made like 151 proof poison. The first batch I made of it, my girlfriend at the time and I (and this isn’t why we broke up) each had a glass of it, and the next thing we remembered we were waking up on the floor with headaches.
I just kept making it because it was fun, and once I start doing something, I get kind of obsessive-compulsive about doing it really well. I started making it really well. Now, I don’t make my own anymore. I just buy it because I don’t have the time or the wherewithal. Also, it’s legal.
How do you make lollypops?
You make lollypops with sugar and corn syrup and water and a little bit of cream of tartar to prevent crystallization (which I had to learn). I would be selling lollypops and people would be like, "Why are these turning white?" and I would have no idea. Apparently, cream of tartar is an acidic by-product of making wine and it does some chemical magic that I don’t quite understand. But, it does its job well.
So, you mix it all together and you heat it to about 300 degrees and then you have it in a hard crack and you pour it in the mold and then you package it. And, you don’t burn yourself, because if you burn yourself with sugar, it’s insane. It’s not only really hot, but you know how you get boiling water splattered on your hand and you’re like, "Oh, that sucks," and then it’s cool again? You react as though it was boiling water: "Oh that sucks. Oh my god, it still sucks. Oh my god, it still sucks." Then, at that point you have this massive sugar burn on your hand.
I take it you’ve experienced the burn more than once?
Yeah, a couple of thousand times, but not anymore really. Although, I do find myself doing things like I’ll see like sugar dripping over the edge of a pan and my initial instinct is, "Oh, that should be cleaned," and then I run my hand over and then I just sort of curse at myself for the next half hour. Because, it was nobody’s fault but mine.
Jason based the shape of his lollypops on this picture from Lolita.
I was thinking about regular candies which would actually be a hell of a lot easier to make, but lollypops are sexy and they are kind of fun. You have this stick hanging out of your mouth and you get to play with it in your hand. You can sort of hold it.
Then, I decided on the shape for these because of the kind of iconic picture of Lolita from the 1970’s movie where she’s got the heart shaped sunglasses and they’re halfway down her nose and she’s licking lollypops. I was like, "Okay, that’s what I want my lollypop to look like in people’s heads."
Do you make the lollypops at home or do you have a lolly-factory?
I made them at home at first and then once it became a business-business, I realized that I had to be professional. So, I have a kitchen that I rent out in Hunter’s Point. I don’t have a factory yet. Apparently, for the equipment that I would need to get for it, if I could find it used somewhere, it would be a minimum of $100,000 outright, which I really don’t have just sitting around yet.
It’s not just that, it’s just like buying a baby. Then, you have to get a warehouse, then you have to deal with this thing forever, and then also you feel bad about having bought a baby, because that’s apparently illegal in most countries. That was a bad joke. So, no, I don’t have a factory just yet, but someday. It’s my little dream.
Do you still do it all by yourself?
I have part-time workers that come in and help out. I haven’t quite 100% figured out how to hire people. It’s a matter of being able to give them a set 20 hours a week that are definite. I’m really enjoying being self-employed. Like you saw though, getting me to do the interview was a pain in the ass, so imagine me trying to schedule you for work hours. So, again I do have people that are employed, but it's part-time and pretty much just me.
Tell me more about the work that you did before Lollyphile.
I run another business too, it’s called Swapsf. Me and my ex-girlfriend run it. It’s a large-scale clothing swap. It’s 500-1000 people at any given moment, and everyone gets drunk and gets a whole shitload of new clothes and it's really fun.
So, real life before this - I did marketing for a number of different industries, PR, and graphic design. And then, I sort of learned how to do what I think is real marketing, which is actually effective marketing rather just sort of lying for the CEO (which is kind of what marketing is, I guess, just lying to people).
I started doing real marketing, which is sort of actually communicating with people and finding out what’s actually up and making them feel like they are doing it with me - which is what Swapsf does. That’s the marketing I’ve been approaching with this.
When I send out newsletters, I make a point of being 100% straight up. If initially I was like, "Oh, I’ll come up with a new flavor every month," it couldn't work because the reality situation is that if I did that my life would completely collapse due to too much business.
My next flavor comes out in a few weeks. Recently, I sent out an email saying, "Hey, sorry I made everyone wait this long." I had a little sale and it was fun and it’s really cool. Because I’ve been doing it in that direction, I get fan letters - not like "Oh my god, I love you," but kind of like people feel a connection and they really get off on different kinds of candy.
I had this one letter from a lady - she and her husband celebrate every single major event, like their anniversary, engagement, whatever, with absinthe and he is currently overseas in the Army so she mailed him a bunch of lollypops. That was her way of having that moment with him. I thought it was the sweetest thing ever and I was like, "Can I put this on the website?" She said, "Please do." I loved her.
Are you a general foodie?
I’m kind of a food snob. I only buy from farmers’ markets, and for a minute, when I was younger, I was a chef at a pretty fancy restaurant in Seattle. I cook a lot. I make the best matzah ball soup in history.
Do you do make floaters or sinkers?
Floaters. Good question. Way good question! Are you Jewish?
I am. I ask because my husband likes matzah balls that you have to cut with a knife. I’m not a big fan of those.
Yeah, mine are floaters.
Wait! You’re Jewish and you make lollypops with bacon?
I know. There was a magazine called Jewcy, get it? I noticed on my website stats that there were a lot of hits from there. They were like, "This guy is selling like the least kosher lollypops." Which incidentally, I found out that saying something is the least kosher is kind of a misnomer because kosher is binary. It either is or isn’t. I could essentially make it on Saturday, cover it with blood and serve it with cheese and it wouldn’t be any less kosher than it is now. Kosher is binary. I kind want a T-shirt that says that.
They were like, "You should do a chicken soup version." I was like, "Okay, the meat has to be cured or everyone will die." And then my friend, James, said, "How Jewish would it be if everyone died from lollypops?" So, I made a deal with them that at some point in the future I’m going to make a genuine kosher lollypop and it’ll be like Manischewitz or like hamantaschen with cookie in it. I still have to figure that out.
I think you should make charoset lollypops. Those would be yummy.
Charoset is definitely one that’s been coming up a lot. I just think there’s a lot of moving parts involved with that so it has to be a super short run of like 2000.
Not really so much. I’m kind of like a vain health nerd, so I can’t take in the sort of sugar that I used to. For a while, I was finding myself just sort of randomly shoving lollypops in my mouth while I was cooking, and then after a really quick period of time, I got sick of sugar.
I’ve got a thing right now where I’m trying out candy bars. I read Candy Freak. It’s really good and you’d probably like it considering what you do. He was talking about all these small regional candy bars that don’t really get outside like a two state area, like Valomilks and Idaho Spuds and whatever. I kind of get snobby with candy bars and so I’m the guy who shows up at a party with stuff that no one's ever heard of. So, that’s the candy I eat - weird and rare candy bars.
Is the next lollypop flavor top secret information?
No, in a couple weeks, I’m coming out with a Wasabi Ginger.
That sounds really good.
Yeah, it is. I’m just getting the last few kinks out, because I don’t want people saying it actually blows. But it’s really close, like a couple weeks off. Then after that, I’ve got some other stuff. But, I’m keeping that as kind of close to the chest for a minute.
How do you test new flavors?
I make them to where I think they are good. Then, I make a few hundred and I pass them out to friends who have no problem telling me whether they suck and then I go out to big parties and pass it out to strangers and see how they react. If it’s pretty much good across the board, then I’ll sell them.
Aside from the flavors, is there anything that makes your lollypops different than any other lollypops?
It’s a novelty, no one’s ever heard of them. But also, people like buying things that were made by somebody. It kind of has the mystique that they know that I made it. It’s not like it was mass produced by some machines that were watched over by people getting paid minimum wage and kind of hating life. It was made by a guy who was getting off on making them.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
I’ve been reading a lot of Michael Pollan, but I guess that’s too easy, especially because I live in San Francisco. The next one I would say would be Alice Waters, but that’s also pretty easy, because I live in San Francisco. I’m going to go with Alice Waters. She’s pretty awesome.
She’s kind of, I guess, the godmother of the Slow Food movement. She’s amazing. She helped San Francisco be even snobbier about food than it already is.