Sweet Success for Lofty Pursuits
On the surface, Lofty Pursuits in Tallahassee, Fla., looks like a soda fountain and ice cream shop, but its recent successes have pushed its candy brand, Public Displays of Confection, into the public eye. However, the business has roots in a rather unlikely hobby: juggling. We spoke with owner Greg Cohen to learn about how Lofty Pursuits has evolved over the years and how some pieces of the past have kept the business moving forward.
While most foodservice businesses have roots with chefs or restaurateurs who long dreamed of serving their food to the masses, Lofty Pursuits’ beginning is a bit more niche.
“I actually started in college by manufacturing juggling equipment, believe it or not, because I was a juggler and it was expensive to go to juggling conventions,” says Cohen. “I did this to pay my way for years to juggling conventions. I could make anything. I had a day job as a commercial artist in marketing, and sooner or later my day job got in the way of the hobby. I opened a retail store that sold things that I enjoyed, so I’d have the space to build the juggling equipment in the back. I sold stunt kits, I sold yo-yos, I sold juggling equipment, and that’s how Lofty Pursuits was born.“
While the bulk of Lofty Pursuits’ business is now food products, evidence of these fun origins are still evident in the seating area of the soda fountain, where toys and games are available both to play with and for sale. While Cohen enjoyed this line of work, he soon found the rise of an internet superpower encroaching on his retail sales. Thankfully, his business philosophy meant he caught this change in tides early.
“I have a firm belief that every five years or so, your customers change, and if you don’t change they leave you behind.”
“Every year I’d sit down and analyze my business and see where it was going,” explains Cohen. “I went into other manufacturing, but in 2010 I’d stopped manufacturing the juggling equipment and I’d moved into yo-yos. The yo-yos, I realized, were eventually going to stop being a viable product to sell mail-order, because they’d start buying through Amazon. How can I compete with free shipping?”
After closing down the mail-order side of the business, Cohen was left trying to figure out how to keep his business solvent.
“A brick and mortar toy store can succeed if you have a compelling reason for someone to shop retail. I needed to be pulling people in regularly so they’d see the toys. I wanted to reach out to that market,” says Cohen, “So I put in a full-service soda fountain. I felt a soda fountain could do well because I grew up next to one in Brooklyn, an old one that had opened in the ’40s.”
At this point, Lofty Pursuits had toys and treats, but Cohen wanted a spectacle to draw even more people, and he happened across the perfect solution.
“I felt I needed a show, and I was trying to decide what I was going to do for the show, whether I was going to do a book reading [or] live music,” says Cohen. “I ran into a candy maker who made the style of candy here, and I went, ‘I must learn it.’ I’m an artist, I like hot things. I’ve done welding, glass blowing, iron casting, aluminum casting. I thought, ‘I could learn this.’“
Now that Lofty Pursuits had a soda fountain and candymaking, there was a new location on the horizon. In January 2017, Cohen moved his business into a new, larger location, and began working toward offering brunch, which has recently become available.
With Cohen juggling all these concepts in one business – did we mention Lofty Pursuits also operates an ice cream truck and does catering? – it would be easy to let the quality slip. However, an intense focus on high-quality ingredients and service has kept Lofty Pursuits at the top of its game.
“We do things a different way from everyone else,” explains Cohen. “Not the short way, the long way. Most ice cream shops have 2 to 3 suppliers for all their ingredients. I have 93. I get the best of everything. The cherries come from one place, because they’re organic and naturally flavored and don’t taste like cough medicine. The candied ginger, there’s only one place in the world that makes it well and they’re in England. We get the best malt powder out of England, too. We make our own syrups, which means we have to deal with exotic extracts.”
When Cohen added a brunch menu in recent months, he kept to his creed of using the best of the best, but stayed closer to home.
“There’s a farmer’s market in front of my store, and I decided to use as many local ingredients as possible. The farmers show up 300 feet from where I’m standing three days a week. I don’t have to pay for delivery, and I know they’re going to come three days a week to deliver no matter how little I need.”
Another part of that dedication to quality is using the same tools for candymaking that were used by the masters of the art in the Victorian era.
“When the candymaker I hired came in, he needed a couple weird pieces of equipment,” says Cohen. “A candy cooling table is one of the critical components. I got a candy table from 1891. It has a half-inch steel top, it has a water cooling system inside, and it weighs about 2,000 pounds. I got it shipped over and I fixed it up at a fraction of the cost of a new one.”
From there, Cohen’s antique findings snowballed.
“I started tracking down the old equipment. Eventually I got to a point where the old candymakers knew I was looking for this, and they’d hear about a friend retiring or trying to clear out his garage [who] wanted the candy equipment to go to a good place, and they’d call me up. They’d track me down and I bought it off them, sometimes for a fraction of the price, and I feel guilty about it, but they’re insistent because they really want me to use the equipment. And I do, I use it all.”
Sometimes some of those antique finds came from some pretty unexpected places, such as the piece of equipment found in an automotive garage. It spent years sitting on a shelf in the garage simply because the owner liked how it looked.
“It was completely covered in motor oil,” says Cohen. “You’d think it was gross, but it preserved all the iron perfectly. It was the best possible thing.”
Keep an eye out for the second part of our interview with Greg Cohen, where we discuss his thoughts on social media, marketing, and his popular candymaking videos.