Soktevy Phann-Smith, photographed at Keg and Case Market in St. Paul
photos by darin kamnetz
For Soktevy “Tevy” Phann-Smith, her Spinning Wylde cotton candy business—like the spun sugar itself—seemed to materialize out of nothing. After buying a cotton candy machine for her niece’s birthday party, she recouped costs by making the treat at a fundraiser for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, where she works in data collection. Soon after, her husband, Ben, built a cart, and she popped up at the Little Mekong Night Market, Mall of America, and the Super Bowl.
Named after their 4-year-old son, Spinning Wylde doesn’t sell typical cotton candy, either. Phann-Smith’s family immigrated to St. Paul from a Thai refugee camp when she was 2, and her Cambodian heritage shows up among the 50-plus flavors—from tamarind and wasabi to lychee and sriracha. Coatings include seaweed, freeze-dried fruit, cardamom, and sprinkles, and while there’s no artificial food dye—“Pink is not a flavor,” she stresses—her light-up unicorn glow cones and Pocky-legged mini sheep up the creations’ Instagrammability.
About a year after Little Mekong, Spinning Wylde opened this fall at the new Keg and Case Market—located in the old Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul—aided by a small-business loan, a successful Kickstarter campaign, and friends and family. With creative flair and a firm work ethic, Phann-Smith has carved out a space in the local sweets scene.
How did Spinning Wylde begin?
I had gotten a little, rinky-dink cotton candy machine on Amazon for my little niece’s birthday party. I was always really crafty, and I just wanted to do something fun for her. I never had the patience to bake. You know, the thing with cotton candy is, you make it, and it’s like magic—if it doesn’t taste good, you just try again. It’s not like when you bake and you’ve got to wait 45 minutes only to realize, “Wow, this was a really bad recipe.” I felt kind of guilty giving kids this sugary snack, though, so I was like, “OK, how can I deliver it in as clean a way possible?” Without artificial food dye, using organic sugar, using natural flavoring—and it really took off from there.
What drew you to selling at festivals?
I’ve bounced around a lot and had issues with feelings of displacement, and I think that’s one of the reasons I like small festivals. I recently did the Powderhorn Art Fair, and it was raining, and everyone was hunkered down in their own little tent. I think I would be really good at squatting, and I think that has a lot to do with having a refugee background. It seems like my life’s theme is trying to create a space that is safe and welcoming, because I’ve never felt at home anywhere. Plus, food is a huge part of my culture. My mom and I are both compulsive feeders—we’re hosts; that’s how we show love.
How have customers reacted?
For a lot of people, cotton candy is nostalgic, and because we use organic cane sugar and no dyes, our cotton candy is vegan, gluten-free, and allergen-free. So, we’ve had people in tears, who say their whole family is allergic to food dye and have never been able to have a treat.
Are you a big cotton candy fan?
I don’t necessarily like cotton candy myself. I think it’s really sticky. But I always buy it at the State Fair. It’s such a magical thing—like you’re holding this cloud. When you’re making it, it materializes out of nothing. And then it gets sticky and I just pass it off. [Laughs]
What are your favorite flavors?
I love rose flavors. In the Middle East and Asia, floral flavors are really popular. But if you’re tasting rose head-on, it’s going to taste a little soapy, so we cut it with some honey flavor. I also really like the s’mores one: We toast a marshmallow on a skewer, wrap a chocolate-and-marshmallow cotton candy base around it, then dust it with graham cracker. For the Cambodian New Year, I did lemongrass. We have a curry-based flavor called Furry Curry. The spicy ones—those are my favorite, because there’s a lot going on rather than straight sweetness.
You sold at Mall of America during the Super Bowl. How was that?
There were people asking us all kinds of crazy stuff: A mall-chain company from Chicago asked us about franchising, others were like, “Can you come out to L.A. and do this?”—when there are plenty of cotton candy people in L.A. already.
What made Keg and Case’s offer different?
St. Paul. I live in south Minneapolis now, but St. Paul has always been near and dear. Plus, my husband and I both love industrial spaces. We love the architecture of [the Schmidt Brewery building]. It’s a historic landmark—an old brewery that’s now a renewed marketplace. So, making this old, nostalgic treat new, I thought, would be interesting.
Did you ever imagine you would run a cotton candy business?
I guess I fancied I would have been a writer. When I was at Hamline University, all the classes I took were in writing or art. I took a class at the Loft Literary Center for indigenous writers, and I was just beginning to explore feelings of displacement. I was kind of ashamed to be doing a cotton candy business. I’m certainly not saving lives. It’s not a nonprofit. I was kind of just having fun. But a friend of mine said to me, “What you’re doing is really valid, and I think that in our culture”—she’s Cambodian-American also—“we really struggle with joy and happiness.” I don’t know why there was so much shame around that, but then there are moments of real joy—just spinning cotton candy for people, and a kid squealing, and an adult squealing.
For me, it’s an exciting food that’s also simple. Way back, sugar used to be hand-pulled to floss, so it was only consumed by the wealthy. When I look at the act of eating cotton candy today, it’s revolutionary, it crosses class.
Tell me about naming your business after your son.
I was thinking of these cutesy names—like “poof” or “lollipuff”—but they were taken. So I was like, Spinning Wylde—nobody’s going to have that because it’s my son’s name. Let’s run with it and we can change it at the end. I seem to fear lasting impressions. I love the thought of writing, but I’m very fearful of permanence, and I think that’s why I love cotton candy. When I take all the cotton candy I’ve made for displays to the back and run water on it, it just disappears. And there’s something poetic in that. I need to find meaning and beauty in what I’m doing, and maybe that’s what I’ve found with cotton candy.
More information at Spinning Wylde.