Hey Sugar - Debra

Hey Sugar

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Interview: Nikki Gillingham, Blue Whale Communications

Photography: Marianne Rothbauer, Rothbauer Studio , Debra Cowie


Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started.

Not everybody knows this but a little over 3 years ago I was an executive in the government working on issues around money laundering and terrorist financing and while it had been a great career I was really itching to do something creative so I made the leap to start my freelance photography business. As a photographer my focus is on food and products (thinks that don’t move!) so over time I’ve gotten to know and work with people in the Ottawa food world and also the amazing local maker community. I love to cook and I was playing around for a while with ideas for what my own food business would be if I had one someday. Hey Sugar happened kind of randomly.

When did you start making candy?

Just over a year ago. Early last spring I was listening to the awesome Cherry Bombe podcast interview with Jami Curl who had just written a cookbook based on recipes she used at her former candy shop in Portland, Quin. I’d never made candy but was intrigued so I got the book from the library and the ideas started popping. Candy is pretty much a blank slate for flavours and I could see how Jami’s basic recipes could be adapted. 

Photo: Debra Cowie

Photo: Debra Cowie

Why candy, instead of more traditional baked goods like cakes or cupcakes?

There are a lot of amazing bakers in this town and I’m lucky to call some of them my friends, and while I love baking cakes, I just didn’t know what I would bring to the table in that kind of business that would be special. One of the things that excited me about candy is that no one around is really doing it – at least not in the way I wanted to, using real ingredients and creating grownup foodie flavours. 

What’s the most popular candy you sell, and what’s your personal favourite?

I think the most popular lollipop is the Birthday Cake flavour. Who can resist sprinkles? Plus it has a really great vanilla cake flavour. For me though, I tend to like the ones that take a bit of ingenuity to create or rely less on commercial flavours. My very favourite has to be the Margarita. I put just a tiny bit of flaky salt in the mold before I pour the candy in so the first few licks you get the sense of the salt rim on a margarita glass. I also love the Strawberry ones because they have real roasted fruit in them. I’m going to try adding cardamom to those for this spring.

Cotton candy is a new adventure for me – and I say adventure because working with candy is part science, part technique and part magic so you never know quite how it’s going to behave – but people are really excited by it. I’m really looking forward to being able to put creative and grownup flavours into something that’s so nostalgic from our childhoods.

Photo: Debra Cowie

Photo: Debra Cowie

Did you always know you wanted to run your own business?

Absolutely not! I moved here from Vancouver to go to graduate school and got a government job before I was even finished and thought “Great. Well that’s the career taken care of.” Entrepreneurship has been a very steep learning curve and many mistakes have been made along the way.

What’s something you’ve learned since starting your business that’s surprised you?

Maybe not a huge surprise but I continue to be bowled over by how kind and supportive people are. Ottawa loves local and whether it’s another business offering advice or writers and bloggers offering promotion or amazing people who come to my table at a market and say “I follow you on Instagram and I need to try these”, it’s all pretty cool.

Photo: Debra Cowie

Photo: Debra Cowie

What’s it been like becoming a part of the Ottawa business community?

Amazing. I’ve been selling at makers markets (yay Freewheeling Craft and Cheerfully Made!) and the vibe is so cool with everyone buying from one another and cheering each other on. I’ve also gotten amazing advice from other food businesses, like Sara from Top Shelf Preserves and Steve from Split Tree Cocktail Co. and others who are further down the road I’m on and so generous in sharing what they’ve learned. Because I do custom orders for parties and wedding favours I’m also hooked in with Ottawa’s amazing group of wedding vendors who truly practice community over competition and are amazing for referring one another. I wasn’t sure what I would find when I left 20 years of office life and coworkers behind but the business/maker community here is really amazing.

What have been some of your favourite custom orders to date?

My friends at Revelle Bridal Salon asked me to create a custom lollipop for their store anniversary celebration last summer. They were champagne and strawberry flavoured (of course), the perfect blush colour of pink champagne and had crushed rose petals inside. I made a heart-shaped version, without the rose petals, and sold them for Valentine’s Day.

Photo: Debra Cowie

Photo: Debra Cowie

When you’re not busy making candy, what are some of your favourite things to do in Ottawa?

I tend to be a bit of a homebody – hosting dinner or brunch parties for friends or playing human dog pillow for my 4lb chihuahua but I love going to coffee shops either to work or to daydream with my laptop open. Ministry in Hintonburg is my local. I also love going to the Ottawa Farmers’ Market on Sundays. I had a CSA share one year, which was great to have vegetables delivered and to support the farm but I missed going to the market and seeing my vendor friends.


 Favourite cocktail?

I love a good Negroni !

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