Zac’s Sweet Shop: Side Hustle to Business Projecting $1M


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From a young age, Zac’s Sweet Shop founder Zac Coughlin had a passion for art, food and business. “I always say, I went to the mall not for toys or clothes, but I went straight to the food court, and I would study the food business,” he says. “I would go to places like Dairy Queen and Mrs. Fields, and I would not only eat the food, but I would also observe how they marketed, how they branded the products, how they would upsell.”

Coughlin couldn’t help but notice that many items sold in specialty sweets shops weren’t exactly affordable: $5 for a single chocolate strawberry? So he asked his mom if he could make his own, convinced he could whip up the delicious treats to enjoy himself — and potentially sell them for less than the going rate. She agreed, and at just 13 years old, Coughlin launched his own business.

It started with a 12-ounce chocolate melting pot, he recalls; he’d dip strawberries and cookies for his friends, and his dad would help him make deliveries. In seventh grade, during his first year at a new school, Coughlin’s peers got wind of his confectionery talents — and wanted to try his creations for themselves. “People would text me to pre-order [the treats], and I would bring these boxes of sweets in the hallways,” he says. “I started with four or five orders, then it was 20, and then 40.”

Related: He Started a Luxury Side Hustle at Age 13 — Now the Business Earns More Than $10 Million a Year: ‘People Want to Help You When You’re Young’

“Being adopted has really given me this unwavering urge of self-sufficiency to really prove my worth and my value.”

Now, Zac’s Sweet Shop ships its “fun, approachable and delicious” treats nationwide and aims to hit seven-figure revenue in the next 12 months (400% growth); it also boasts corporate clients like Google, Disney, Meta, Hulu, American Express, Lionsgate, Netflix and more. According to Coughlin, the sweets are “a take on nostalgic classics that we grew up with” and include hits like mini pretzel rods covered with caramel, milk chocolate and salt flakes, or s’mores bark with cinnamon graham crackers, vanilla marshmallows and dark chocolate drizzle.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Zac’s Sweet Shop

But Zac’s sweet success all began with that early interest in entrepreneurship, one Coughlin says being adopted helped fuel. “Being adopted has given me this unwavering urge of self-sufficiency to prove my worth and my value to not only the people around me, my family, friends and colleagues, but to myself,” he explains. “That was something that was innately in me ever since I was very, very young, but I actually did not realize that until a lot later in life.”

Related: What’s the Biggest Lesson to Learn as a Young Entrepreneur?

Although Coughlin’s middle school ultimately stopped him from selling sweets to his fellow students, Coughlin continued to grow his business among family and friends, catering events like birthdays, communions and graduations. But when he left his hometown of Pittsburgh for Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, the business took a backseat — because he didn’t really know anyone in his new city, he no longer had a customer base.

However, when some of his classmates learned about his sweet history and wanted to know more, talking about the business helped Coughlin realize how much he missed it. It was time to revisit his lifelong dream of “building the next iconic American chocolate shop” — to become the role model he’d always wanted to see. “Growing up, I never really saw anyone who looked like me on TV,” Coughlin says. “I was growing up watching shows like Cupcake Wars and Cake Boss, and I never really saw myself. So I naturally just wanted to become that person.”

“I had to learn a lot about how to scale from making a couple dozen sweets to hundreds and thousands at a time.”

Coughlin “went to the drawing board” and looked into what it would take to open a chocolate shop in Los Angeles. But he realized the immense cost would be prohibitive and pivoted to a direct-to-consumer (DTC) model instead, recognizing that some of his favorite bakeries, like Milk Bar and Baked By Melissa, successfully shipped nationwide. What’s more, going DTC would allow his friends and family back in Pittsburgh to start ordering from him again.

After a year and a half of research and preparation (“I spent every day that I wasn’t in class learning every aspect [of the business]”), Coughlin raised about $27,000 through a small Kickstarter campaign in February 2019. It was enough for him to set up a commercial kitchen and acquire the initial licenses and necessary packaging.

“I [was] also learning how to scale product,” Coughlin recalls, “which I actually didn’t really get to learn until two weeks before I launched, to be honest, because there [are] so many things that are so intricate with chocolate, with tempering, humidity, and then shipping and perishable. So I had to learn a lot about how to scale from making a couple dozen sweets to hundreds and thousands at a time.”

Zac’s Sweet Shop opened for business in October of that year. Between then and March, the company did about $1,000 in monthly sales, with a spike during the holidays. That changed in June 2020 after the shop received a shoutout from Beyoncé: Coughlin did $20,000 in sales in just two weeks, at which point he really needed to figure out how to scale, he says. Fortunately, Coughlin’s community rallied around him; friends helped out in the kitchen until 3 a.m. to fulfill all the orders.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Zac’s Sweet Shop

Related: The Sweet Side Hustle She Started in an Old CVS Made $800,000 in One Year. Now She’s Repeating the Success With Her Daughter — and They’ve Already Exceeded 8 Figures.

“It took a long time for this business to start to really make money, but I’ve always stayed true to who I am and who I wanted to be.”

Although it was a very exciting time for Coughlin and his business, it was also a “really heavy time,” he says, explaining that “it was one of the first times that I realized who I am and the opportunity that I had and the impact that I could make.” After the Beyoncé moment, Zac’s Sweet Shop experienced a “domino effect,” landing corporate clients and catering movie premieres. In March 2022, Coughlin took the side hustle full-time.

Up until that point, Coughlin’s day job made use of his communication major and music industry minor: He was the manager for a girl group. And, as it turns out, there’s some crossover between that work and running Zac’s Sweet’s. “I always say I market my products as if I’m marketing a pop music campaign,” Coughlin explains. “Loud, colorful, fun, engaging, social-media-heavy.”

Related: Does Social Marketing Really Make Dollars and Cents?

Now, Coughlin is preparing for an exciting brand relaunch that will involve growing the team (currently, it’s just Coughlin, one other person and freelancers) and putting more money into branded packaging — something the 100% bootstrapped business didn’t have the capital for in the past, despite Coughlin’s artistic inclination and creative drive. “An early mentor told me to always address what you need for the business versus what you want,” he says.

And for any young entrepreneurs who want to follow in his footsteps and see some sweet success of their own, Coughlin has some hard-won words of wisdom: “It’s a little cliche, but do what you’re passionate about, and money will always come,” he says. “It took a long time for this business to start to really make money, but I’ve always stayed true to who I am, who I wanted to be and where I wanted the business to go. It took some time, but I definitely feel like I got there, and I’m still working on that.”

This article is part of our ongoing Young Entrepreneur® series highlighting the stories, challenges and triumphs of being a young business owner.


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