A powerful female partnership with a sweet tooth
Insights from Kathryn Connor and Lindzi Shanks, XO Marshmallow (Rogers Park)
At XO Marshmallow, a gourmet marshmallow café in Rogers Park, Kathryn (Kat) and Lindzi are an unstoppable co-founder duo. The café’s colorful treats along with its vibrant atmosphere are guaranteed to make adults nostalgic of their childhood. Amongst pink booths and “XO” pillows, you can find displays of dream bars, marshmallow and s’more pops, and glass jars filled with assorted goodies--a sweet tooth’s dream come true.
The marshmallow obsession was born in an unlikely place: law school. While Kat was getting her degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she frequently made homemade marshmallows as gifts for her family and friends. It all started the winter of 2014, when she found a marshmallow recipe on the side of a hot chocolate kit: “It said at the very bottom of the recipe, 'try making your own marshmallows.' And I was like, it’s going to be so easy. It was not easy.” Even though it was a bit more of a challenge than expected, she succeeded in giving out mugs with cocoa and marshmallows for the holidays.
From then on, Kat was hooked. “That Spring 2015 for my graduation, I did a s'mores bar...I made marshmallows, I used a different recipe this time, and I decided to add flavors to them. So we had coffee and raspberry, and mint...And nobody wanted to go to the actual ceremony because they were all roasting marshmallows! And that’s when again my friends and family... said you have to try and sell these.”
Soon enough, fate brought Kat’s marshmallow making skills and Lindzi’s branding and small business experience together. It was holiday season in 2015, and Kat was working at Lindzi’s clothing boutique, The Trendy Sparrow. Lindzi made and sold graphic mugs in her shop, and when she found out that Kat made marshmallows they decided to sell the sweets right next to the mugs for some hot coco inspiration. It was a hit.
In June of 2016, they started selling the marshmallows online. They had such high demand that they decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the hopes of opening a storefront. Sure enough, they exceeded their pledge goal by almost one thousand dollars, validating the product: “We had done a popup shop with a bunch of other female-owned businesses the Christmas before we opened and one of the things we realized was people in the Chicago area really wanted us to have a physical space,” Lindzi says. By June of 2017 they opened the brick & mortar XO Marshmallow cafe.
Generally, Kat creates and perfects the marshmallow recipes, while Lindzi handles marketing and packaging. But in a small business, it’s never that simple. “The advantage of being a small business owner is wearing that many hats...you are a salesperson, you are an electrician,” Kat says. They see it as an advantage that they both get a feel for every aspect of the business.
Plus, being a small business means having the chance to form close relationships with customers, who often enter the shop to find the owners mid-flavor experimentation: “We have the opportunity … to directly hear the feedback from our customers and to talk to actual customers when they’re coming in.”
Even the struggles that can come with small business, like starting with less upfront capital than large businesses, only motivates them to be more creative with their spending and marketing. Their different backgrounds also help them tackle the challenges that come up. Lindzi’s degree in Psychology from The University of Chicago comes in handy with marketing strategies: “It’s all about understanding other people and communicating...figuring out what it is that drives them and makes someone want to buy something.” And Kat’s background in law comes into play for dealing with contracts, or even just to boost the team’s credibility: "Being able to whip out the law degree definitely helps at times. … You really don’t want to mess with us. We get a lot of people that are either more established or think they know better. So to be able to turn around and say, ‘Actually, you don’t know better. I know how to run my business,’ it’s really nice to have that behind us. Not to prove that you have to get an advanced degree to run a business, but that we are utilizing them in smart and unique ways.”
XO currently has an all-female team, which has impacted Kat and Lindzi in ways they didn't necessarily expect: “I feel like [being a woman] affects the way I am as a boss, especially for the female employees. I’m their boss, but I also look to mentor them … and we want to empower them to do a really good job so that they can do something for themselves moving forward,” Lindzi says.
And if there are any boss lady partnerships out there looking for advice, Kat has some words of wisdom: “Make sure you’re doing something that gets you excited to wake up in the morning [and] keeps you from wanting to go to bed at night.”
Today, Kat and Lindzi have their sights on expanding their business: “We always say we want to do for marshmallows what sprinkles did for cupcakes.” The café’s marshmallows are handcrafted with natural and gluten-free ingredients, with innovative flavors from lavender honey to rainbow sherbert. “They’re these little squishy, fluffy cubes and you can’t help but smile when you mess with them,” says Lindzi.