Candymaker Finds Sweet Success

Fairy Tale Cotton Candy's team working together to create, pack, and ship products around the world.
Fairy Tale Cotton Candy’s team member working together to create, pack, and ship products around the world.

An enticing aroma greets you at the Fairy Tale Cotton Candy factory in Des Moines.

It’s sugar, but it could also be considered the sweet smell of success. Inside the factory, more than 50 varieties of cotton candy are produced and shipped far and wide to small stores and big box outlets, and under private labels to Universal Studios, Dollywood, and other tourist destinations.

The business is owned and operated by Steve and Meg Shearer and is a spin-off of their Chocolate Storybook candy company. Fairy Tale’s success can be attributed to Steve’s sales wizardry, Meg’s creativity, and manufacturing support from the CIRAS team.

“It’s challenging to grow a business. It is overwhelming to go after new ideas. We have a formula for how to do it, but it takes a lot of time,” said Steve. “Working with CIRAS makes it easy to manage everything. We’ve partnered with them for a long time, and they know our business.”

Willy Wonka has his Oompa Loompas; the Shearers have CIRAS.

In 2002, the Shearers bought Chocolate Storybook, a well-established Des Moines candy retailer. The pair collaborated with a vendor that supplied wrapped caramels, one of Chocolate Storybook’s most popular items. When the vendor went out of business, the Shearers bought all the assets with plans to open a facility to produce caramels. Business associates urged them to reach out to CIRAS for guidance.

They connected with Brenda Martin, then a food industry strategic advisor with CIRAS.

“The key is having a trusted relationship with a strategic advisor who listens and understands what the company is trying to accomplish. Diagnosing where and when they need support leads to offering the best resources at the right time,” said Martin.

Martin explained what would be necessary for an FDA-inspected caramel factory. The Shearers quickly realized that they might be biting off more than they could chew.

After finding another caramel vendor, they turned their attention to 10 cotton candy-making machines that came with the deal—a decision that would spin them into a whole new adventure.

Initially they produced cotton candy in their Chocolate Storybook location. The Shearers added on to the building to meet growing cotton candy demand. Realizing the potential of their new line, the Shearers revisited the factory idea and once again turned to CIRAS.

“They had to translate their experience operating a retail facility to becoming a manufacturer, and that’s where our strength is,” Martin said. “We helped them understand how to evaluate potential buildings, offered ideas for plant layout per federal food safety requirements, coached them on updating operational procedures, and helped them locate sustainable sources of ingredients.” The Shearers attended CIRAS Preventive Controls for Qualified Individuals (PCQI) certification to meet FDA requirements, and they invested in learning about packaging with Dr. Keith Vorst of the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium.

They opened the new factory in 2019. “Their transformation from retail to manufacturing was significant, and they were able to reach full-scale production with international sales in an unbelievably short time,” said Martin.

Marketing Support

Running two candy companies came with challenges on how to manage their digital presence. Meg and her daughter Sabrina teamed with Paul Gormley, CIRAS project manager, who did an assessment to understand the company’s marketing strategy. They also attended Gormley’s Strategic Marketing Boot Camp. He was ultimately able to connect the Shearers with a variety of resources to help them enhance their website so it served both businesses, improved their search engine optimization, and expanded their digital advertising. “I want to make sure our clients become knowledgeable consumers of digital marketing services who understand what they are hiring people do to, how to work with them, and how to evaluate if the results are what they wanted,” said Gormley.

Since these efforts, the company has seen “an increase in the number of visits to the website. We’ve just recently implemented these improvements, so we are looking forward to seeing the impact in 2023,” said Meg.

Chocolate Story Book and Fairy Tale Cotton Candy sell products through a variety of channels, including Amazon and Etsy. CIRAS helped them understand their customer data needs by conducting a Customer Relationship Management matrix development exercise. The Shearers were able to create a system to track their various sales mechanisms, helping them to better manage and meet customer demand.

“It revolutionized our fulfillment process,” said Steve.

In the early days, the couple ran the factory and made all the decisions. Martin advised them that the complexities of a growing factory needed to be led by a dedicated manager. They were reluctant at first, but now agree it was one of the best decisions they’ve made. CIRAS helped develop the job description and the Shearers ultimately hired Addison Zellmer, a 2014 Iowa State graduate in supply chain management.

While Meg dreams up flavor ideas, colorful product names, and brightly designed labels, Steve puts his remarkable sales skills to work. The cotton candy business has grown bigger than they ever could have imagined. They just signed Hello Kitty as a customer. CIRAS is currently coaching the team’s preparation for Safe Quality Food certification, which will open new markets with major retailers.

After all this growth, and an incredibly busy holiday season, the Shearers are turning to CIRAS once again. This time to help them develop one-, three-, and five-year strategic plans that cover their succession plan. Eventually the couple will reduce their day-to-day roles in cotton candy production with a well-planned exit strategy that ensures Fairy
Tale’s happily ever after.

For more information, contact Rachel Hahn at or 515-620-8093.