It was a hypothetical question you're not supposed to do anything about.
"If you could open any shop, what would it be?"
Jessica Keller pondered it. She was with friends in Austin, eating near the Texas city's famous Big Top Candy Shop. She had seen dozens of sweet shops around the country, but Big Top was next-level inspiration, a fantastic carnival of gum balls and egg cream and chocolate and taffy.
Candy was happiness. Candy was love. But Keller was a makeup artist and photography buff who had just fled the corporate counters. She wanted to express herself, show off her tattoos and find freedom in her next move. Foundation and shadows and eyebrows were her life.
She looked at her friends through curled lashes. Here's what kind of store she'd open: Candy. And makeup.
• • •
Retail trends come first in nibbles, then bites, then full servings. Cupcake shops. Frozen yogurt stands. Food trucks.
But what if you mixed snacks with the less edible? Could a candy store and a beauty shop coexist, even thrive together?
The nibbles are on both sides of Tampa Bay — Sweet Cheeks Candy & Beauty Bar in St. Petersburg and Peppermint Reindeer Konfection Kafe in Tampa. Both shops have popped up this year, catering to a glamorous crowd with sweet teeth.
If it seems like a stretch, consider the evidence. Sugar and beauty have natural chemistry. They're whimsical, indulgent. When vamped up they assume a Lolita quality, red lips pursed around the lollipop. It's Katy Perry riding a giant banana split. It's Nicki Minaj posing in a pink bra with swirled sucker in hand.
Jessica Simpson sold a lickable makeup line called Dessert. The Philosophy brand has saltwater taffy bubble bath and cinnamon bun lip gloss. There are lines called Hard Candy and Cake Beauty. Dylan's Candy Bar, the New York City candy giant with a branch in Orlando, has reached the beauty market with birthday cake-batter body cream and soda-pop shower gel.
Sweet Cheeks is a slice of that.
The neon coral shop on Central Avenue fronts an old-fashioned paradise inside — bottle cap stools, pink striped wallpaper, black and white floors fit for a sock hop.
It was Keller's vision that night in Austin. She made it happen.
Her husband, Michael, a tattoo artist who owns Classic Tattoos near Sweet Cheeks, loved her idea. He invented the name and drew up a logo, a mysterious pink lady with red lips and a peppermint in her hair.
Keller, 35, rented space with the couple's savings, plus money they'd gotten as wedding gifts. Her father, Steve "S.K." Fish, built the shop from his daughter's imagination and set up his own photo studio in the back. Keller ordered Ring Pops, giant Pixy Stix, cupcake gumballs, cotton candy and sugar necklaces. She stocked Cupcake Conditioner, Salt Shaker Scrub and Candy Kisses Lip Polish, plus a line of vegan makeup called Pin Up Cosmetics. She printed fliers for bridal makeup, photo sessions, makeovers for girls called "Cotton Candy Dreams," after-dark bachelorette parties called "Sugar and Spice."
Sweet Cheeks opened in April, and more than 200 people came to the party. Keller couldn't believe what followed, that business was good enough to cover her bills.
"To this day, it still amazes me," she said. "At first they were like, candy, makeup, how does it all go together? But people took to it really, really well."
Three people have already asked her about franchising.
In Tampa, Tammy Childers found the same reaction.
Her grandparents were chocolatemakers who owned a candy shop. Her first job was in a Morrow candy store. She took a chocolate course in New York. But she also loved to look pretty, spending time at spas and learning about new beauty techniques.
She rented a large space in downtown Tampa — too large for just one concept. So she did both.
July marked the grand opening of Peppermint Reindeer Konfection Kafe. Her candy store adjoins to her beauty shop, 201 Twiggs Studio Salon. On one side, it's eyebrow shaping, manicures, waxing, facials. On the other it's chocolate bark, peanut butter cups, dipped marshmallows.
"Women who are waiting for services, I figured they would meander into the chocolate store and get a little sweet," said Childers, 44.
She has served University of Tampa students, high-rise dwellers, Hyatt guests, casts from Straz Center shows — even one of Lady Gaga's backup dancers.
"I think I'm going to have to expand," she said.
• • •
Keller sat in her shop, doo-wop twinkling in the background.
Her best memories are clear. She remembers trying eyeliner for the first time at 13, feeling beautiful. She remembers going to the St. Petersburg Pier, picking out candy from bins, beaming with fists of Now & Laters and Jolly Ranchers.
That's why she thinks this will work.
"Everything in life is so stressful," she said. "People walk in here and they're immediately happy."
The door chimed, and Keller hopped off her bottle cap with a grin.