CONCORD -- It can be tough to live up to friends' birthday party standards when you grow up in a family of food label readers.
Irene Nelson had attended a pal's celebration that featured mint chip ice cream, and she begged for the same on her third birthday. So her mother, a food co-op founder in the 1970s and manager of early farmers markets, mashed up some avocados, yogurt and raisins and gave her a special all-natural version.
Older sister Dawn Van Hee remembered returning from a Halloween trick-or-treat marathon as a kid with a grocery bag overflowing with candy. Her mother let her keep three pieces.
"That was hard-core," said Van Hee, 39, laughing.
Today, the sisters and mother have turned the family food ethic into a booming business -- NaturalCandyStore.com, an online-only distributor of all-natural candy. It's a vegan, gluten-free, kosher, all-natural Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory of sorts.
The trio, working out of a space in a nondescript gray Concord warehouse next to a lighting fixture distributor, have seen business boom -- up 35 percent from last year. Their Valentine's Day orders grew by 40 percent this year.
"With an online store we have a national reach, and considering we have not done any marketing, yeah, we're looking to grow," Van Hee said.
The family does not make the candy, but distributes the hard-to-find sweets. And with large candy companies
Most of their customers have children with food allergies or simply wish to live a natural lifestyle.
"What our customers really care about is the ingredients," Van Hee said.
Last week, a mother called Nelson to order Valentine's Day candy without food dyes for her son, who just stopped eating the artificial coloring. The boy was devastated at the prospect of not having holiday candy, but she found NaturalCandyStore.com, placed an order and plans to surprise him today.
"She was just thrilled," Nelson, 27, said.
Nelson and Van Hee get grateful older clients, too. One man thanked them profusely because he was able to finally eat red candy, after spending his life allergic to the artificial color Red-40.
"We're proof that you don't need them," Nelson said of artificial colors. "We've got a rainbow of colors."
Aside from family, they have a full-time packer and seasonal workers during the busy stretch of the year -- Halloween until Easter. The outfit just finished its big Valentine's Day shipments -- including vegan baskets filled with natural candy bars, lollipops, gum and chocolate hearts -- and are already gearing up for Easter.
The sisters are even thinking outside the Easter basket, ordering 15,000 packages of biodegradable corn egg cartridges in which to hide candy for egg hunts.
Since earning her biology degree, Van Hee has worked in the food industry. Four years ago, while sitting in a car with her mother, Molly Hamaker, 58, of Walnut Creek, the pair openly daydreamed about starting their own business.
"We hit upon an idea of higher-quality sweets," Van Hee said.
The elder sister remembered traveling across Canada and finding a delicious all-natural hard maple syrup candy. The leaf-shaped candy inspired the company and remains a bestseller for them.
Nelson, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz with an art degree, chipped in and created the website graphics.
"We want to be like going into a normal candy store, where you grab a candy bar here and then another there," Van Hee said of their online store.
One of their newest suppliers is Ocho, a Lafayette-based organic candy bar maker.
In addition to your typical sweets, the website offers unusual options such as all-natural Merry Maraschino Cherries. Most artificially altered maraschinos have their color bleached and a food coloring added to preserve a bright red color.
The shop also includes a baking line of all-natural ingredients, including all-natural variations of chocolate chips, sprinkles, food coloring, hot fudge and even organic marshmallow fluff, with fewer allergens.
The only hiccup in the new family business has been spending five days a week surrounded by sweets.
"If you don't eat lunch," Van Hee said, "it can be trouble."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Order all-natural candy and sweets by visiting www.NaturalCandyStore.com. For local residents, online orders can be picked up in person at 1009 Shary Circle, Suite B, in Concord. The warehouse also can be reached by calling 925-288-1702.