The National Confectioner’s Association has officially proclaimed s’mores the biggest candy trend of 2022, but XO Marshmallow was way ahead of the game. Lindzi Shanks and Kat Connor began selling flavored marshmallows, hot chocolate, and s’mores at craft markets and online back in 2016, opened their first storefront the following year, and will now open a spacious new cafe in Lincoln Park this Saturday, June 4.
Over the years, the marshmallow menu has expanded to include trendy flavors like birthday cake, salted caramel, and sour lemon lime, and customers can now order their s’mores with cookies other than graham crackers. There are also marshmallow cones, turtles, cosmic brownies (“cosmallow brownies”), and marshmallow fluff called OMG (for “ooey marshmallow goodness”) served by the pint, like ice cream, and incorporated into cold brew floats and “Fluffogatos.”
“We don’t pay attention to trends,” Shanks says. “We don’t have access to what the next new things are going to be, but our gut is right on trend. Every time we launch a new flavor of marshmallow, we start seeing it everywhere.”
Shanks and Connor also take the advice of their customers very seriously. Every December, they create an advent calendar that incorporates new flavors, and then they survey their customers for their thoughts and suggestions. The reason they even have a cafe is because their earliest customers at street markets asked for one. Shanks and Connor decided to see if they were serious by launching a Kickstarter. They were fully funded within 30 days.
The first cafe in Rogers Park was a tiny space with brightly-painted walls that could fit a sales counter, three tables, a kitchen in the back, and not much else. But they’d gotten a good deal from the landlord. Over time, the business expanded so rapidly that they ended up taking over the slightly larger cafe next door and, eventually, the restaurant two doors down, where tables and chairs were replaced by boxes of marshmallows ready to ship. And, like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, XO Marshmallow just kept growing (although it never turned evil).
“As much as we love the neighborhood, we could not physically stay there,” Shanks says. They ended up dividing the business: the production and wholesale operations are in a new, 9,000 square foot facility in Skokie, separate from the cafe. Maybe someday there will be production in Lincoln Park, too, Shanks says, but for now, it will concentrate on serving customers. There’s also extra space in the back for pop-ups and classes — though none of the classes will be about how to make marshmallows. The process, Shanks says, is just too time consuming.
The new cafe is designed to be a space where customers could linger, Shanks says. “It’s like the first cafe grew up, went to college, and then moved to Lincoln Park and found her style. We wanted to get past the little kid aesthetic. This is a healing-your-inner-child aesthetic.” The storefront itself is bright pink. Inside, the color scheme is more pink, mixed with goldenrod and baby blue, in the form of murals by local artist Emma Moss and neon signs by Bright Tribe, a woman-owned company. Customers can sit at a high-top communal table or on brightly colored settees.
Shanks and Connor have worked to make their products inclusive. All the marshmallows are made with kosher gelatin, OMG is vegetarian, and all the cookies, graham crackers, and other baked goods are gluten-free. For the past five years, they’ve been trying to create a vegan marshmallow. “There’s a lot of chemistry that goes into marshmallow making,” says Shanks. “You’re trying to replace one ingredient with two or three, and that’s literally the ingredient that makes the marshmallow hold its molecular structure.” None of the recipes they’ve tried have worked at the scale necessary to supply a marshmallow shop. Last year they came close, but the marshmallows dissolved into liquid after two days. Still, they’ve resolved to keep trying.
XO Marshmallow products are currently for sale in 600 boutiques across the country (and through Go Puff), but they haven’t yet reached grocery stores. This isn’t because the founders are opposed to the idea, though; they just haven’t started looking into it. For now, Shanks and Connor plan to concentrate on their online business and, now, the cafe. XO Marshmallow is, Shanks notes proudly, the only non-Boston company invited to the annual Fluff Festival in Somerville, Massachusetts, birthplace of Marshmallow Fluff.
“In general, we want to make people smile from the time they walk in, and stay smiling,” Shanks says. “Especially in the Chicago winter. This is what we’re hoping we achieve here.”
XO Marshmallow, 2730 N. Clark Street, Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, opens Saturday, June 4.