Local gourmet marshmallows evoke camping nostalgia

By ARTS & CULTURE EDITOR

This time Last year, Kat Connor was a busy and broke law student looking for easy holiday gifts for her friends and family. Her solution was to make marshmallows from scratch, an experience that took off in a way she could never have predicted. 

“People went nuts over the marshmallows and the idea that you could make them,” Connor said. 

Soon after, Connor decided to try to make a profit from her experimental gourmet marshmallows, which resulted in the creation of XO Marshmallow, a company she founded with Lindzi Shanks, a blogger and fashion designer who owns an online retailer called The Trendy Sparrow. Since then, the young company has experienced rapid growth.

After research on crowdfunding platforms, Connor said XO Marshmallow launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign and discovered a big demand for the product. The campaign, which ended Oct. 13, raised $6,288 in less than 30 days—more than its $5,500 goal.

“We got contacted by different news organizations [and] bloggers for orders and events, so even before our Kickstarter was halfway through, we were looking at two or three events a week [of sampling marshmallows],” she said. 

The online campaign received attention from the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication that hosts the annual Big Idea Awards. XO Marshmallow was a finalist for this year’s awards, and on Oct. 13—just hours after its Kickstarter wrapped up—the team won its “Eat and Drink” category. The award show audience voted for each category. 

The winners of each category received a $1,000 cash prize, ads in RedEye’s print edition, a one-year small business membership to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and a gift certificate to apply toward event registration.

With the new funding, Connor said the most important purchase will be a new kitchen. Connor makes all 12 marshmallow flavors by hand, which include kinds like raspberry and champagne. Shanks is responsible for marketing and design and said the duo’s best-selling flavor is salted caramel, but her favorite is the honey lavender.

Connor said she did not expect the marshmallows to “fly off the shelves” and cannot keep up with increasing orders because of outdated equipment.

“The orders are coming in, but [Connor] has a mixer that is so small they don’t even make that size anymore,” Shanks said.

Currently, Connor said she works out of Wired Coffee House’s kitchen in Lakeview, 3508 N. Broadway. Wired also sells XO Marshmallows and has a second location in Evanston on the Metra platform. Connor said she hopes to make the Evanston kitchen the company’s permanent cooking home and store.

For now, those wanting local marshmallows can walk into Wired or order online, but Shanks said another long-term goal is a permanent store with a hot chocolate and s’mores bar. 

In the meantime, XO Marshmallows will temporarily be in Block 37 starting Black Friday, Nov. 25, through December as part of the Boss Babe pop-up, which will feature multiple female-run businesses.

The duo was also recently featured on Snapchat’s Sweet Magazine Oct. 19. Shanks said because of Snapchat’s publicity, XO Marshmallows sold 40 boxes of goods in one day. 

“It’s been a lot of exposure and increased awareness, which is perfect because we are getting right into prime marshmallow season as the temperatures start to drop,” Shanks said. 

The founders pride themselves on using local and fresh ingredients for their goods. All the marshmallows are gluten-free, egg-free, preservative-free and Kosher. Shanks said they want to make vegan options but keep the same gourmet taste. 

Chicago is known for many vegan options and restaurants like The Chicago Diner, most notable for its vegan milkshakes, according to Dan Reed, marketing director of Chicago Vegan Foods, the company that makes vegan ice cream for the milkshakes.

Chicago Vegan Foods was started in 2001 by Ryan Howard and Dan Ziegler. They took their activism fighting for animal rights by making marshmallows, trying to change the perspective of veganism and bring attention to products that support factory farming. Dandies Marshmallows, part of Chicago Vegan Foods, created in 2009, now has three flavors, including seasonal varieties such as pumpkin and peppermint, and sells in Whole Foods Markets across the country, Reed said.

“Over the years, we have evolved our recipes, so we can reach this point where we have a marshmallow made with all natural ingredients that ethically aligns with who we are and still continues to get the taste and texture right,” Reed said. 

Both companies aim to bring classy sweets to Chicago. Connor stressed that XO is trying to relive childhood memories.

“We are trying to take something that brings you back in a very nostalgic way to having that s’more by the campfire, or a hot cup of cocoa,” Connor said. 

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