MOUNT VERNON – The year was 2015. After three years of marriage, Tia and Nick Vicars were looking for a place to settle down. To raise their family. To begin the next chapter of their lives.
The Columbus couple was seeking a neighborhood with a strong sense of community. They wanted a place where the neighbors checked on each other; a place with a brick-road historic district; a place where Tia could raise chickens in the backyard because, quite frankly, she always wanted to have fresh eggs.
The Vicars visited Mount Vernon that August during the Dan Emmett Festival, and at that moment, they were hooked. They stood on Public Square and watched as locals flooded the area for live music, food and fellowship. They fell in love. This was where they needed to be.
“It just seemed like a community, you know?” Tia said Friday.
Little did they know, four years later, they would open up a business on that same square.
Tucked between City Hall and the police department on the northeast side, Almost Famous Sweets & Sodas handled overflow traffic on Friday afternoon. Friends, family and community members slid in and out of downtown Mount Vernon’s newest shop. Tia and Nick stood amid the crowd, flanked by their three children, ready to cut the ceremonial ribbon.
“You will see our kids in here working with us. They might be scanning your items, they might be bagging your items,” Nick said with a smile. Liam, Maximus and Kennedy – ages 8, 5 and 3, respectively – held still as their dad addressed the crowd.
“We’re just really excited to be a part of the community.”
A new kind of candy shop
Almost Famous promises to be different. It isn’t your grandfather’s candy shop, Tia warned. There are vintage sodas and candies, sure, but the shop is most proud of its diverse collection of healthy alternatives.
“There’s something for everybody,” she said with a smile.
There are vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free and allergy-friendly products, shipped from all over the country. No Whey Chocolates, from New Jersey, offer products similar to M&Ms, Reese’s Cups and Twix bars, but with no artificial or allergenic ingredients. Safe Sweets, from Cleveland, sells gluten-free, crisp chocolate bark, alongside a variety of other treats.
Those on the ever-popular keto diet can enjoy 40 Below Joe, a frozen coffee treat created by the founders of Dippin’ Dots. Almost Famous plans on bringing in keto-friendly lollipops and candy bars in the future.
As someone with celiac disease, which warrants a strict gluten-free diet, Tia said the idea of an organic candy shop had always appealed to her. It’s also the direction most families are going, she noted.
“So many people do watch what they eat now, and I feel like the thought of an old candy store turns some people away,” Tia said. “The thought was, we want to catch everybody.”
In addition to being healthy, Almost Famous is equally zany.
Most of the products in the creamsicle-colored shop will be new to customers, Nick said. Almost Famous offers 70 different types of sodas – the goal is to one day get to 150 – including flavors like pickle, sweet corn, and peanut butter and jelly.
There are crispy mushrooms from Pennsylvania, hemp seeds from Utah, candied bacon strips from Colorado, beef sticks from Illinois and cotton candy from Iowa. Nick and Tia went to the national Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago this spring, where they connected with family-owned vendors from across the country.
The brands at Almost Famous are lesser-known, Nick said, hence the name. Customers won’t find them in big-box stores like Wal-Mart or Kroger.
While the Vicars are proud of their inventory, they view Almost Famous as more than just a place to shop. They view it as an interactive experience – a place where families can visit and the kids can play. The shop has a custom-made arcade with 400 games on it; it also has a photo wall near the back, where families can dress up in goofy outfits and pose for the camera.
“What we wanted to do different was not just candy, you know,” Nick said. “We wanted to get some healthy options in and some healthy snack options, and make sure that we had offerings for anybody in a family, regardless of dietary restrictions. And then from there, to make it a fun place. To make it interactive.”
Making the leap
The road to 46 Public Square was a curious one for the Vicars.
Neither are from Mount Vernon originally. Tia grew up in New Albany, while Nick hails from Youngstown. The two met 11 years ago at the since-defunct Buck Mulligan’s Irish pub in Gahanna; Nick was a server there, and he was tasked with training Tia as she came on-staff.
“Right from the start, we each kind of were on the same wavelength about work and just putting in hours and doing what you have to do if something needs done,” Nick recalled Friday. “And everything’s kind of grown from there.”
Two years later, Nick and Tia had the opportunity to co-own a Dairy Queen franchise near Ohio Dominican University. They managed the shop for nine years.
After moving to Mount Vernon, however, they began to reconsider their business future. Nick worked long days at the Columbus Dairy Queen, driving back and forth each day while Tia stayed home with the kids. The couple wanted to have their own business – one that operated year-round and was free of corporate guidelines – and they wanted it to be in downtown Mount Vernon, just a short walk from their Vine Street home.
When they found the property on Public Square, they jumped at the opportunity. It had been vacant for years, Tia recalled; it was formerly a stock broker’s office, and before that it was a furniture store. It needed a makeover, but Nick and Tia found the challenge exciting. They sold the DQ franchise in February and got to work.
The shop now looks nothing like it did five months ago, Tia said. She and Nick installed new wooden flooring – definitely a learning experience, Tia said – and painted the interior and exterior. They researched other vintage candy shops to gather ideas, then put their own spin on it.
“We did everything on our own,” Tia said proudly.
On Friday, the cozy corner shop bustled with traffic. Despite the shop’s direction – it faces City Hall more than the square itself, making it hardly visible to drivers – the orange-and-pink aesthetic seemed to draw customers in.
There were people of all ages in the shop. Young boys and girls picked out lollipops and played on the arcade machine. As their parents mingled, two boys drew with chalk on the sidewalk outside the shop.
This is exactly what Tia and Nick envisioned when they made the leap this winter, going from a longtime employer to starting their own business. They felt Almost Famous would fill a need in Mount Vernon, and on Friday, they appeared to be right.
“I feel like every time you go to a small town on vacation, there’s that cute candy shop that you go into,” Tia said. “Our thought was, Mount Vernon needed a cute candy shop. I feel like this was the perfect town for that.”
‘Now was the time to get in’
October will mark four years for the Vicars in Mount Vernon. Each day, Tia said, the family has looked to become more involved.
Liam, Maximus and Kennedy all attend (or at some point will attend) East Elementary, which is just a short walk from the family’s house. Tia is entering her second year as the school’s PTO president, and she talks glowingly about the parents she’s met there.
The Vicars have already immersed Almost Famous into Mount Vernon’s energetic downtown support system, where businesses often promote each other as much as themselves.
Since opening June 12, Almost Famous has already partnered with MTVarts for the opportunity to sell Safe Sweets bars at Willy Wonka performances this September. The shop has collaborated with Alli’s Sweets and Snacks, a flavored popcorn service run by Mount Vernon teenager Allison Page, as her goods are advertised and sold inside the Vicars’ store. Almost Famous has also taken part in MTVarts’ Whimsical Window Contest, in an effort to help advertise the theatre’s new show, the Wizard of Oz.
The Vicars have high hopes for the future of downtown Mount Vernon, given the recent influx of new businesses and the local push to improve the district.
“We felt like now was the time to get in because there’s good, positive changes coming here,” Tia said. “So we’re excited for that, to be part of the new and upcoming, exciting things that are coming.”
For Carol Grubaugh, the executive director of the Knox County Chamber of Commerce, hearing Nick and Tia’s story was inspiring. The fact that they sought out Mount Vernon as a place to not only start a family, but also become invested in the community, speaks to the city’s upside, she noted.
“I think it says volumes about our community,” Grubaugh said. “We are a very friendly, welcoming community. You know, our doors are open. So certainly, they can come from any part and we’d love to have them. It’s great. It’s a great testament, I think, to Knox County.”
The first three weeks have been a success for Almost Famous, Tia said. Employees from City Hall and the police department will often stop by the shop for a snack or a drink. The most popular items so far have been the cotton candy, any of the Bob Ross products (especially the tree mints and ‘positive vibe energy drinks’) and 40 Below Joe frozen coffee.
Still, the ambitious Vicars have plans for the future. They view birthday-party catering as the business’s next step. They plan to implement additional signage outside their shop to increase roadside visibility, and hope that Mount Vernon’s downtown revitalization plan – which includes the opportunity for patio seating around the square – will help draw in customers down the road.
To this point, the Vicars have been in constant motion. Starting a new business with three children under the age of 8 is no small task, and Friday seemed to symbolize that. Sugar-infused mischief kept Mom and Dad busy before and after the ribbon-cutting.
But it’s been worth it, Tia said. Mount Vernon felt Friday like it did when she first saw it – a place of opportunity. A place to take chances. A place to grow together.
“It felt [like] home,” Tia recalled. “We love it.”