Spinning the sugar inside a machine, Jessica Shaw smiles. Then holding the stick, she hands over a delicate white cloud of dessert to her customer.
Through Swirl, she has been serving up gourmet cotton candy this summer at the Whitefish Farmers Market on Tuesdays. She uses organic sugar as a base offering treats without any artificial flavorings or dyes. Her flavors go beyond the traditional “pink” or “blue” usually associated with cotton candy, and instead her menu includes options like coconut, pineapple and champagne, alongside the more kid-friendly bubblegum, strawberry and root beer.
“I wanted to be creative with the flavors,” she said. “Cotton candy doesn’t have to be pink or blue, it can be other flavors and express creativity.”
Each cloud of cotton candy averages only a tablespoon of sugar, Shaw points out, noting that as desserts go that’s pretty healthy. Also, it’s vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free.
Shaw says she has heard a lot of parents say their child cannot have a certain dessert because of food allergies or they’re trying to stay away from dyes and chemical flavors, and Swirl’s cotton candy fills that void.
“It really is the perfect dessert,” she said. “And it doesn’t really take that much sugar.”
Prior to beginning Swirl, Shaw admits she wasn’t too much of a cotton candy fan herself, saying the traditional kind most people are used to seeing premade in packages, was just too sweet. But making it fresh gives it a lightness and freshness, which is why she makes hers to oder in front of her customers.
“When it’s made fresh it has this great smell,” she said. “The smell of the sugar melting starts to waft through the air.”
Shaw moved to the Flathead Valley three years ago. She has a background in marketing and writing, and works for nonprofits.
She was reading an article about wedding and event trends and found cotton candy on the list, and that got her to thinking that there could be a market for that here.
“I had some extra time and I was looking for a fun, profitable business that currently isn’t available,” she said. “I did some research and looked at ways to improve on the cotton candy I was familiar with.”
On April Fools Day, she registered her business and opened a bank account, noting that if the endeavor didn’t work out she’d have a good story to tell.
Swirl has been a vendor at the Farmers Market this summer, as Shaw has worked to perfect her spinning technique and get the word out to other potential clients.
She is brimming with ideas — making flavors like chai and coffee for the fall or pairing cotton candy with beverages such as hot cocoa for the kids or cocktails for the adults. She’s working on seasonal flavors like Flathead cherry and hoping to create a lavender one, and came up with a sour apple.
“I’m looking for anything that’s whimsical,” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”
She envisions Swirl for private parties like birthday parties or gender reveal parties, in addition to holiday events and weddings. While she says she’s working on creating a cotton candy that is shelf-stable, the best way to enjoy it is fresh.
“There’s something about the experience of watching the sugar turn into cotton candy,” she said. “People’s eyes get big with wonder.”
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