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Friday, December 3, 2010

Sweet Rexie’s a Lifetime in the Making

Sweet Rexie’s a Lifetime 
in the Making
(Appeared on front page of
Fairfield Sun 12/2)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
11/22/10

Fairfield, CT – It’s been a year since Sweet Rexie’s dropped anchor in downtown Fairfield but a lifetime in the making for owner Nanci Lewis.

A small town girl with a good head for numbers but also a creative flair, Lewis’ many life experiences gradually pointed her to the sweets emporium that has become a favorite of area shoppers. While busy preparing gift baskets and store displays in advance of the holidays, she took a moment to share what inspired her, how the business has evolved and all the wonderful and diverse items that she carries.

Early Inspiration

“It’s ironic, but I wasn’t a real candy junkie when I was a kid,” said Lewis. “For me, it was about good chocolate. I was really into chocolate.”

Born Nanci Vicedomini in Springfield, MA, Lewis was the youngest of three children. Her father owned a custom electronics company. Later on, he opened a catering business and Lewis’ mom was a chef there and cooked all the food. “They were good role models as entrepreneurs,” said Lewis. “I helped out with the catering, from age 10 to 19, when they sold the business. After school, whatever I could do, I did, from food prep to serving. We did a lot of wedding business and private events.”

Lewis’ Italian heritage was also influential, given the family orientation and love of holiday traditions. “My mother is a fabulous cook, it’s her whole world,” said Lewis. “I was always around that. Everything was made from scratch. Pizza, pies, bread. We had amazing holidays… Christmas was very magical. My mother had a certain style of decorating, color coordinating wrapping paper with tree d├ęcor. If the tree was red and silver, the paper was red and silver. It was very elegant, but also fun. I took a lot from that.”

Her grandfather was another key factor. “He owned a candy and ice cream store in Waterbury, CT, where they actually made their own ice cream,” Lewis recalled. “People came from all over. My mother told me how she cut strawberries and helped make the ice cream. I was young, but I do remember the store – all the jars, the penny candy.”

A Detour into Finance

In 1980, Lewis went off to Boston College, and majored in economics. “I have to give my parents a lot of credit,” said Lewis. “Back then, a lot of girls didn’t go to college. My dad said, ‘It’s not if you will go, but where you will go.’ I was really resistant, but it was the best thing I did.”

After BC, she did an M.B.A. at the Crummer Graduate School of Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. “The program at Crummer was great, with only 50 of us, and quality professors who gave us individual attention. I felt like I got a lot of out of it and the business background was later helpful in knowing how to do simulations, forecasts and projections. I’ve drawn on all of that.”

Fresh out of grad school, Lewis pursued finance. “I was good with numbers and strong in math, and people guided me that way. But I was also creative. Interior design may have been more appropriate for me.”

Her first job was with United Technologies in the Sikorsky Division, doing financial analysis on helicopter programs. Then she worked for Sprague Technologies, a Fortune 500 company that made semi-conductors, in corporate planning.

In 1990, she married John Lewis, originally from South Africa, who was at Yale doing a PhD. He was accepted as a fellow at Memorial Sloane-Kettering specializing in surgical oncology. They relocated together to New York in 1992.

“I was new to New York and did some temp work, ending up with Ames Management Association, which manages corporate training programs,” Lewis explained. “I worked closely with the marketing manager, handling the financial responsibilities for marketing programs. I coordinated all the course leaders and training in 18 different cities, and helped develop courses. It was probably my favorite job, as it let me branch out.”

Unfortunately, Ames went through a restructuring, her unit was dismantled and her job ultimately phased out while she was on maternity leave, pregnant with first daughter Rachel. While she was offered a spot to come back, she made the decision to be a full-time mom and she and her husband bought a home in Fairfield, in 1999.

The Big Idea

As a homemaker and mom, Lewis would get involved in all the fun embellishments like tea parties and birthday celebrations and what she terms “Martha Stewart” type things. “Other moms noticed,” Lewis remembered, “and would say, ‘You’re good at this.’ I realized it was a gift. Rachel was 5 when I got the idea to start Sweet Rexie’s.”

The business name was a merger of two names – Rachel (now 11) and her daughter Lexie, 7. Lewis has a third daughter, Mia, who’s 3.

“It seemed like it would be fun,” said Lewis with regard to her thoughts at the time, “though I had no retail experience other than a Gap job in college. I had a bit of a learning curve, and had my challenges, made my mistakes.”

Lewis opened her first shop on December 8, 2004 at 136 Washington Street in South Norwalk. The shop had ample space – at 2,000 square feet – and was, overall, a great experience. “I had very loyal customers, and drew from a wide geographic area. But parking was always a challenge and we didn’t get the visitors we hoped for from the Maritime Center. And, at the end of 2008, the economy was falling out and our traffic count started to go lower.”

Lewis said it was a very challenging period. “I had to really drive our traffic all the time. The saving grace was birthday parties, which made up 30% of our business. My lease was ending and I wanted to be more accessible to my children while maintaining the business, so I decided to relocate to Fairfield.”

The entrepreneur settled on a retail space at 1552 Post Road and, after renovations, opened November 21, 2009. “This space is great for us… right in town and walking distance to the train. We’ve been so busy getting everything ready for the holidays, our 1-year anniversary just slipped by.”

She explained that, in early December, people place all their custom orders. Closer to the holiday, they get rushed and want pre-made packages.

Pausing for a moment to reflect on how she arrived at this point in her life, Lewis said, “I guess it wasn’t until I opened this shop that I realized how full circle things had come and how I subconsciously drew on the imagery of my grandfather’s shop. This has more of a contemporary flair, but we also have the old-time candies like the Mary Janes, Bit ‘o Honey, Fireballs, Twizzlers and Tootsie Rolls that were around when I was a kid. It’s funny, the paths people end up choosing.”

SIDEBAR

Sweet Rexie’s: So Much More than a Candy Store

Nanci Lewis, the owner of Sweet Rexie’s in downtown Fairfield, is often challenged by the perception some people have of her business. At first glance, it gets summed up as a candy store, but as it states on www.sweetrexies.com, Sweet Rexie’s is “so much more than a candy store.”

“People don’t realize we do gift baskets,” said Lewis, “and we’ve been doing them for six years. We also have apparel, games, baby gifts, ice cream, etc. Once people come in, they remain loyal and keep coming. It’s all about selection, quality and packaging.” 

As to the product line-up, it is truly broad, spanning the following categories:

-       Games, puzzles, plush toys, arts and crafts, dolls, miniature cars and novelty stocking stuffers
-       American Girl crafts line and mini dolls
-       Plush toys for babies
-       Pre-made and custom holiday gift baskets in a wide price range
-       Teacher and hostess gifts
-       Exotic and imported chocolates including brands Chocolate Moderne and Anna Shea
-       An ice cream counter with 16 flavors from which to choose including everything from Birthday Batter to Raspberry Sorbet
-       150 selections of bulk candy, from dark chocolate to gumballs
-       Classic candies like Dubble Bubble and Bit ‘o Honey

Lewis also serves businesses with the ability to customize packaging with corporate logos. “We have worked with a host of companies including Marriott Corporation, Mercedes Benz USA, banks, realtors and more,” noted Lewis.

As important, Sweet Rexie’s will deliver locally, including all area hospitals, and ship nationwide.

With the feel of an old-fashioned candy store, but the wide inventory of a modern retailer, Sweet Rexie’s has something for everyone -- at the holidays and throughout the year.

Sweet Rexie’s is located at 1552 Post Road in downtown Fairfield. For more information, call 203-254-3254 or visit www.sweetrexies.com