The circumstances that propelled Jennifer Ashby into Diana Zogaric’s orbit were just warped enough that both confectioners figured that the universe itself had arranged their meeting.
In the fall of 2020, shortly after Diana purchased the shuttered candy store at 122 West Portal in San Francisco, she took a vacation to her hometown in suburban Detroit. On a visit to a beloved family restaurant in Frankenmuth, Mich., Diana studied the candy store in the lobby -- one she had visited for decades -- with the fresh eyes of the confectioner she had recently become. She bought a few chocolates and popped one in her mouth. It was exquisite. She had to find out more.
The harried cashier blurted out the name of the vendor from whence the chocolates came, and Diana scrambled to punch the information into her phone. Upon returning to her parents’ place that night, she Googled the company and was delighted to learn that it was located in Scotts Valley, halfway between San Jose and Santa Cruz. The next day, she called Ashby’s Confections and the owner, Jennifer Ashby, picked up the phone.
“I think you’ve reached the wrong company,” Jennifer said, “I don’t have any retailers anywhere near Michigan.”
Diana, who hadn't been sure that she heard the busy cashier correctly in the first place, took it as a sign. As did Jennifer, who had ambitions of distributing her signature product, Vegan Sour Strips in an array of fruits, “from California to New York.”
By the time the conversation ended, Diana had secured her first vendor for Shaws Candy, although a daunting demo and rebuild would delay the grand re-opening of the 90-year-old store until mid-January 2021.
It didn’t take long after the ribbon-cutting for Diana to discover what Jennifer had already ascertained, with mixed emotions, about her own company: her bon bons and other chocolates sold well enough; but Ashby Confections was being consumed by an insatiable demand for her vegan products, specifically her sour strips.
“It turned out that this is the thing that I make that people are obsessed with,” Jennifer noted. “No matter how much I increase efficiency, I cannot keep up. I don’t have the employees, space or equipment to get ahead.”
None of which is waylaying her dream of seeing her sour strips in stores from coast to coast, a goal on which she is so focused that she will soon unveil a new name for her signature product in the hope of trademarking it: Sourbys.
Like it or not, Jennifer is well aware that her vision is almost surely going to require her to pivot Ashby Confections into a specialty confectioner. Like her meeting with Diana, the success of Jennifer’s Vegan Sour Strips had some intervention by the universe.
“They were the product of an accident,” she admitted. “I made some fruit candy and it wasn’t super popular. So I put it aside trying to figure out what I was going to do, and it got a little dry. But the texture was amazing, and I thought that if I added some sour flavors to this, it might be salvageable. So I started giving away samples, and people went nuts!
“I’m not vegan, but I am interested in a healthy diet and I recognized the demand,” she added. “A lot of gummies are made with gelatin, which comes from the bones of animals, and that’s not something I’d use no matter how I classified my own diet. I use pectin. With my vegan tortoises, I used coconut cream instead of dairy cream.”
The relationship between Jennifer and Diana may have started as the result of crossed wires, but it was galvanized by a simpatico business philosophy: candy, like the food served in their favorite San Francisco restaurants, could aim for the extraordinary.
“When my kids were little, I never put those cheap, hollow chocolate bunnies from the grocery stores in their baskets," Diana said. "I would always go to World Market and get them finer chocolates and nice toys for their baskets.”
“When I started this thing almost 20 years ago I was inspired by the farmer’s market movement around here,” said Jennifer, an Ojai native who stuck around Monterey Bay area after attending UC-Santa Cruz. “I have dedicated myself to curating these gourmet candies. There are easier ways I could do this, but the dedication to the fruit wouldn’t come through. Things like purees make it taste artificial.”
Jennifer is fond of telling the uninitiated that her soon-to-be Sourbys, which come in as many flavors as the locally sourced fruit she can secure on any given week, taste like “grown up Sour Patch Kids.”
As her text alarm went off. Jennifer glanced at her phone and laughed. The message was from Diana.
It read: “Send more sour strips NOW!!”