Nothing but sweet success & candy at The Counter

Words: Robyn Samuels

To be a kid in a candy store is a dream for some, but for the team behind The Counter, it’s a sweet success story. Founded nearly a decade ago, the popular confectionary and corporate gifting company has become a favourite for sweet tooths across the nation. Drawing inspiration from childhood flavours, they stock everything from Krispie Treats to Koekies, Coco Malt Fudge and beyond. We chat with co-owner, Meg Pascoe, about how the team spun a passion project into a candy and catering emporium.

The Counter candy and catering

Crush Chats with The Counter

Having been in the hospitality industry for nearly 24 years, Meg discovered a love for events management while working at an upmarket conference centre in London’s most exclusive district, Mayfair. Upon her return to South Africa, she started a position at a catering company, where she met trained pastry chef, co-owner and friend, Ian Vos. With Meg’s marketing and event management experience and Ian’s pastry and production skills, the pair decided to launch a side hustle that would expand their creativity and their team…

The Counter team Meg Pascoe, Vicky Menzi and Ian Vos

Pictured (left to right): Meg Pascoe, Vicky Menzi, Ian Vos.

It wasn’t long after they found their right-hand woman and talented sous chef, Vicky Menzi, who brought years of kitchen management and catering experience to the table. Recently, Vicky was appointed as Head Fudge Maker – those who have tried their fudge will know that a ‘finger’ is not enough, you’ll want a whole slab. Today, the three passionate foodies sell artisanal goodies to thousands through exclusive retail stores and their online shop. Ahead of the festive season, Meg shares the chaos of catering, why she’s obsessed with The Counter’s chilli crisp, and what she’ll be baking this Christmas.

How did The Counter come to life?

Ian and I were working together and needed a creative outlet besides our already creative jobs (oh, to be young and have so much energy). We started The Counter on a whim, selling sandwiches, brownies, jams and cordials at a small market in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, called ‘The Super’. We quickly gained a following and moved our operation to Market on Main, where we spent every weekend for several years slinging our now-famous gourmet beef burgers and selling hundreds of kilograms of our decadent confectionery.

Our initial idea was to build The Counter up to a small restaurant or deli, but since we had so much experience with event catering, we just went with the flow. The ‘sweet side’ of things also evolved completely naturally – we were always known for our Gooey Chocolate Brownies – one fateful April day, Ian made a batch of white chocolate fudge, and pretty much has not stopped for eight or nine years.

How does it feel to be an adult in a candy store?

Haha, it’s pretty cool! Running your own business, as hard as it is, is also really fun and rewarding when things are going right. It’s also super great to have access to such fun foodie gifts and delicious goodies all the time.

The Counter festive gift boxes

Starting a business with friends is either a genius or terrible move – how did you three make it work?

Luckily, we work so, so well together. Where I am lacking, Ian and Vicky have strengths. After working together for over fifteen years, we’ve become a really well-oiled machine. We are also very open with each other – if I make a mistake or Ian messes something up, we bring it up immediately, find a solution and move on from it. Ian is also fantastic at executing all of the crazy ideas and combos that I come up with.

Many of the sweets have a playful and nostalgic feel to them – was that the idea from the beginning?

I absolutely love anything nostalgic! I get that from my mom; it makes me so happy to walk into her kitchen and smell something cooking that reminds me of my childhood. I didn’t realise early on that much of our produce was based on nostalgic foods, but when I did, I leaned into it completely.

We love to play around with nostalgic flavours – like having Milo in our Coco Malt Fudge, or making Krispie Treats, but adding couverture white chocolate to elevate them a bit. We started stocking Ian’s mom’s Koekies when she lost one of her biggest clients during lockdown – I’m so glad that we did, because her products are so popular with our customers.

During lockdown, you developed ‘the sort of cookbook’  – what inspired it and what recipes can home cooks expect?

Panic inspired that cookbook! When lockdown happened, all of our client events were cancelled, one after the other, so we needed to find a solution to bring money in to keep the business afloat. We quickly switched strategy and sold frozen meals, which was a crazy two weeks. When the lockdown announcement came, we were forced to close our doors for six weeks. That being said, there was no way I was going to sit back and not try something to keep us going, so I started putting a cookbook together.

I spent two weeks lying on my kitchen floor, shooting images, testing recipes and putting it all together. I even designed our online store the night before we launched the cookbook, so sales would be quick and easy for everyone. The recipes were inspired by ingredients I had at home, and most of the recipes are interchangeable with other ingredients – hence ‘the sort of cookbook’. We sold nearly 500 copies, which is still astounding to me!

You sell everything from gingerbread fudge to peanut brittle and bourbon + vanilla salted caramel sauce – how do you come up with fun flavours for confectionaries?

The combos definitely come from that nostalgia mentioned before. I absolutely love classic combinations, with a little twist. They’re classics for a reason! Every now and then, we try to get fancy with our flavour combos, but always come back to what we know and love best. Sometimes, it’s just a case of smooshing two classic flavours together and seeing if they work, which they usually do.

Catering is a tough gig. You’ve been at it for two decades now – what are some of the challenges you’ve had to navigate?

Catering is so tough, especially since we still do everything ourselves – it can be exhausting. We’ve technically been at it for over two decades now. Running and catering events is actually pretty straightforward if you have planned everything properly, which I absolutely love to do. I’m the girl that plans ahead for literally every worst-case scenario I can think of, so we’re always ready when a problem arises at an event.

External factors like load shedding and disorganised clients are some challenges we run into, but we always find a way to make it work.

Favourite thing to bake over the holidays? Why?

My mom’s shortbread – 100%. The recipe comes from her gran, right out of Scotland, so it is proper, buttery Scottish shortbread. My mom bakes batches and batches of it over the holidays, and has passed the recipe down to all four of her kids; we’re just obsessed with the stuff. Nothing reminds me of Christmas more than a pile of mom’s shortbread. We started selling it at The Counter a few years ago as well, which makes her so happy.

The Counter cookies

Savoury or sweet?

Don’t tell anyone – I actually don’t have a sweet tooth, if you can believe that.

Top three picks from The Counter?

My absolute favourite item is our Salted Dark Chocolate Cookies (they’re salty and not too sweet – the perfect balance) and our newly launched Chilli Crisp. I can barely have a jar at home because I just end up eating it on everything. Ian’s favourite is our Gooey Chocolate Brownies, and Vicky’s favourite will forever be the Rocky Road.

The Counter festive gift boxes
The Counter festive gift boxes

How do you hope the business will grow in years to come?

We hope to keep going in this incredibly tough economy and build the business up slowly. Our main goal is to have our confectionery range in hundreds of retail stores, delis and coffee shops across the country. There is nothing that makes me prouder than spotting our beautiful packaging on a shelf in a store somewhere in South Africa. One day when we’re big, we’ll open a large factory, hire a bunch of staff – clones of the three of us would be ideal – and take on the global market with our fudge.

For more info on The Counter, visit their website, where you can also order their goodies. | Facebook | Instagram

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