Success has been sweet for Mark R. Lando, president of Pittsburgh-based Sweets From Heaven. When Lando's small chain of candy stores was purchased by a publicly held company based in Johannesburg, South Africa, it grew to 350 outlets worldwide, including 51 throughout the United States.

Sweets From Heaven's domestic stores include 16 company-owned and 35 franchise locations. In addition, seven more stores are on the drawing board, according to Lando. The company is working in partnership with franchisees to develop those stores.

"This is not just another candy store," Lando says. "We are a self-serve candy operation with a much larger selection than our competitors and unique products from the international market."

With an average store size of 750 sq. ft., Sweets From Heaven sells bulk and wrapped candies stored in tubes and bins where customers can scoop out measured amounts. Among the 300 varieties available, favorites include Jelly Belly beans and M&Ms, but international treats such as the Flake, Aero and Crunchie are also popular. The products come from Europe, South Africa and other parts of the world. The product mix offered at each Sweets From Heaven location is customized to suit local tastes.

"A year ago we were destination-oriented, as well as an impulse concept, which is something we were striving to accomplish," Lando says. At the Manhattan store, for example, where tastes lean to the more exotic candies, regular customers stop in once a week to see if a new shipment has come in. "And they'll pick up 10 or 15 candy bars and stop back a week later."

There are no demographics surrounding the ideal candy customers, but there are demographics that define the type of candy they're buying. Older, more sophisticated people are better consumers of the international products because they cost a little more, explains Lando. "At different times of the day you'll see adults and elderly people, and during the afternoons when school's out the stores are packed with kids," he says, adding that 40% of business is the 12- to 20-year-old category.

The Manhattan store also serves as the design model for new stores currently under development. "We have a look that is so dynamic that we've had landlords call us up and ask us if we want to put stores in their malls," Lando reports.

The stores' new design is focused on the retailer's concept of fun. As a result, the Sweets From Heaven atmosphere is designed to be heavenly. The store has large metallic clouds carved into a dark blue ceiling. Neon lights define the perimeter of the store, reflecting a purple glow. "These bright colors, surrounded by 350 tubes and bins of bulk candy, make a strong impression," Lando says.

Sweets From Heaven stores are primarily located in major shopping malls. The company is looking at high-traffic downtown areas for new sites similar to the Manhattan site.

Future expansion plans include opening 16 to 20 more franchise stores and six company-owned stores in the United States by year's end. The company also is discussing a joint venture with the franchisee owners of the New York locations to help it expand. The three sites are located on Long Island, West Nyack and Manhattan. The goal is to have 10 stores operating in Manhattan within the next year.

"Down the road," adds Lando, "we want to double what we do this year."

As a founder of The Athlete's Foot chain, Lando advocates the franchise system. He says building and supporting a strong company infrastructure is key to keeping franchisees on board. "A lot of franchisers sell, sell, sell, and can't offer any support," he says. As a result, franchisees defect from the group. Lando never experienced a defection or nonrenewal while overseeing The Athletes Foot chain, and does not expect to have one with Sweets From Heaven.

"We recently brought in a venture capital partner that has brought financial and analytical skills to the table," Lando says. "Overall, we're doing extremely well."