“Dad, I really have to go,” Sara Sohn tells her father, 70-year-old Sang, in a pleading voice with laughter at its edges.
“But I don’t know what kind of heart I need to be drawing. And the eyes on my happy faces—I can’t keep them in the right place. They look angry; they shouldn’t be angry,” he says plaintively, oblivious to just how charmingly amusing this exchange is—one of the many reasons he and his wife, Hye-ja, are such fan favorites among Sweet & Sara devotees. I can’t help but laugh as this young entrepreneur and inventor brings her full attention and high energy to me and apologizes for the infinitesimal delay.
“Fall is our busy season, and we’re putting thank you notes on every invoice. Dad has a hard time with hearts,” she explains wryly.
It’s these tiny little personal touches that set her already extraordinary business apart, earning the brand accolades and rave reviews for exemplary customer service as well as a game-changing product. This deeply empathetic connection between Sara and the creatures in the world around her has served as her inspiration for her past 23 years of vegetarianism and veganism and the decade of hard work as the founder of Sweet & Sara, the first vegan marshmallows to ever hit the market.
Although 10 years of business is a major mile-stone, the path to her growing success has been rid- dled with other rocks along the way. “From the beginning, I knew it would be extremely challenging. I was a vegan for a long time before more products became available; when I first made the decision, the only things I could eat were carob bars and Sunshine burgers. I missed choco-pie (a chocolate and marshmallow biscuit) and Rice Krispie treats—things that were always in the house growing up. I kept waiting and waiting for someone to come up with vegan marshmallows, and finally, I started to Google recipes and found the suggestion to substitute animal-based gelatin with carrageenan, a seaweed extract. And it worked.”
Or so she thought. As her hobby-turned-side- business began to receive more and more orders, she was sure she had a hit on her hands. NYU-educated Sara quit her day job as a bookkeeping assistant, and with nothing but pure faith as collateral, secured funding from her loving parents in the amount of…their entire savings. With that investment, she procured a 600-square-foot commercial kitchen in Queens, connected with a carrageenan supplier that had been in the game for nearly 50 years, and got ready to get down to business.
The dream came to a sickening and sudden halt when the laboratory reports came back and she and several other companies—including two competing brands that ended up having to be pulled from Whole Foods—found out that the reason this distributor’s product worked so well was because it was actually laced with gelatin, the very product she was trying to avoid.
Devastated and terrified, Sara frantically called food scientists in search of a solution. There was none. “It can’t be done,” she was told. “No gelatin substitute can replicate the marshmallow mouthfeel. But good luck.”
With hundreds of thousands of her parents’ hard-earned dollars on the line, 10 months of over 150 grueling test runs and increasing panic followed. She slept on the cot she still keeps in her factory office, tried and tried again to no avail. Just as she steeled herself to bring her mother to tears over this seemingly failed enterprise and confront her maxed-out credit cards, her final experiment yielded: a marshmallow. A real, puffy, delicious, creamy vanilla marshmallow that melted, roasted, brûléed and tasted like nostalgia and felt like comfort.
The timing could not have been more serendipitous. CNBC did an exposé on the so-called “carrageenan” supplier, and Sweet & Sara debuted their triumph over adversity to a national audience. Whole Foods called; the Food Network followed; Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, movie theaters and college campuses were not far behind. When Duane Reade came knocking, she almost hung up the phone, thinking it was a joke. When she realized it wasn’t, Sara’s excitement knew no bounds.
“My whole mission has been to get people to eat more vegan, and I feel like the best way to do that is to get your product to be more mainstream. I have a lot of non-vegetarian/-vegan/-kosher people who love our marshmallows, brown rice crispy treats, s’mores, moon pies and rocky road bark,” she shares with pride.
The sense of purpose that comes with being able to provide this option is what gets her up every morning. “The job isn’t glamorous and it’s really stressful, but I get e-mails and calls every day from people who are just so excited over a simple marshmallow. People cry because it’s such a nostalgic thing. They tell me, ‘Little Joey can now go camping with his friends and not feel left out.’ ‘It’s been 30 years since I’ve had yams or hot chocolate with marshmallows.’ And it’s so fulfilling to know that I can make people feel that way, knowing that no animals were harmed, and to have a platform to talk about veganism, its health benefits and break this and other stereotypes in a public space. In so many ways, I’ve been very lucky.”
However, I can’t help but feel that it might be the other way around, and it’s we, the consuming public, that owes a debt of gratitude to all things both Sweet & Sara.