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Zac Coughlin ‘17: Testing the Recipe for Sweet Success

Like many kids, Zac Couglin loved sweets, the gooier the better. He would go to Dairy Queen and load up his Blizzard with cookie and candy bits and then scarf down Hostess snack cakes at home. At the mall, he would walk past the clothing stores to stare at the expensive chocolates in the windows of the Godiva shop, the way an adult might ogle a diamond ring in the jewelry shop. 

Zac Coughlin

I was a candy-crazy child,” he said. 

Unlike other kids, Coughlin created his own chocolate company at age 13. When his family held a holiday party, Coughlin dipped strawberries, pretzels and Oreos into melted chocolate and decorated them with a multi-colored chocolate drizzle.

“Where did you get these?” the guests asked him after eating his treats. “These are so good.”

Zac’s Sweet Shop was born – and he soon brought it with him to Shady Side Academy Middle School, selling to students. He had the keen attention to ingredients and presentation of a pastry chef, an entrepreneur’s eye for profit margins, and his own drive to become the next big chocolate brand.

Today the 24-year is going full tilt on Zac’s Sweet Shop, his online dessert company, which received a boost when Beyoncé added it to her website’s directory of Black-owned businesses in June 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

He didn’t meet Beyoncé personally, but somehow she found out about his Los Angeles-based online company that sells salted caramel pretzels and Oreo truffles and other bite-sized treats to customers around the country.

On June 19, 2020, Coughlin woke up to find that his website received 300 hits overnight. This is really weird, he thought as orders from all over the country poured in. “Then I looked at my analytics and saw and I almost lost it.”

“I went from eight orders the previous week to over 100, and I got a bunch of press, including the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and more. It was an insane effect.”

But as happy as he was about the bump in sales, “it was a sad and heavy time, and made me sit back and think about what I could do as a Black business owner. Zac’s Sweet Shop saw sales like nothing I’ve seen before (from people investing in Black-owned businesses) so I immediately felt the need to donate a portion of proceeds to organizations doing important work. Seeing so many people come together made me feel proud to be part of the communities I am a part of, and I also wanted to lead by example and build a meaningful business with passion and purpose.” 

Coughlin, who is biracial, wants to be an inspiration to other Black bakers and confection makers.

He grew up eating dessert first and watching TV shows such as Cupcake Wars. But he never saw anyone who looked like him on those shows. He wanted to prove that he could excel in the predominantly white and female world of baking. Instead of mowing lawns, he would sell dessert trays for parties, earning about $400 to $500 at a time, and spreading the word with his first batch of business cards. Even back then, he watched his bottom line, earning profit margins of 60 to 70 percent. 

Zac Coughlin

“Being biracial and being adopted by white parents has always given me this sense of determination and this drive to prove my worth. I worked really, really hard to prove myself, but over time, I realized that I didn’t have to do it in every situation.”

Even the way he transferred to Shady Side Academy was an act of will. He grew up in McKeesport, a former steel town in the Mon Valley, and attended the public schools. A swimmer, he met competitors from Shady Side Academy at meets and decided he wanted to attend the school too. He thought its high academic reputation would put him on the pathway to achieve his goals and convinced his parents to let him go to school across town.

After transferring to SSA, the kid who was at the top of his class at his old school found it difficult. “It was a huge culture shock,” he said. Linda Lee McDonald, a Senior School English teacher, worked with him on his writing, guiding him from a conversational style to an academic tone. She helped him with his college essay and even developed a marketing line for his sweet shop that he uses to this day – Our chocolate covered pretzels collide your sweet and salty cravings like nothing you’ve ever had before

“Linda McDonald was my champion,” Coughlin said. “She was an awesome teacher.”

Coughlin interned in the Academy’s Communications Office, and he valued the mentorship of Lindsay Kovach, assistant director of communications.

“Lindsay Kovach was an integral role in my growth at SSA – she not only allowed me to explore my business and creative pursuits but also was a huge guide for me,” he said. “From interning in her office, working with her on expanding the Fox Chapel Farmers Market, to her listening and giving me so many fun and slightly crazy ideas for Zac’s Sweet Shop. I value her friendship to this day.”

For any insecurity he may have felt at first, he overcame it with his ebullience and good nature.

“Zac was as friendly and as generous and as community-building as any student I have ever met,” McDonald said. “He was always looking for the next laugh. What you didn’t see was the deep ambition underneath and the commitment to his dreams. It was an unusual combination.”

There is no better place to sell candy than a school full of hungry teenagers. He set up shop in the hallway of the Middle School – until an administrator took him aside and politely said, “Zac, I love what you’re doing. But we just aren’t sure if it’s legal to do it in school.”

Coughlin said he understood and would take his business off-campus, but he remembers thinking to himself – I’m going to have to figure this out.

The orders still came in, and Coughlin and his father started delivering the sweets to his classmates after school. “I was always hustling, and I was never going to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

When there were school dances and then prom, the student committee often bought desserts from Coughlin. “It was like, ‘Zac makes these amazing sweets. Everyone loves them. We should get them,’” said Ananya Satyawadi ’17, his classmate and friend.

“Zac had a magnetism about him,” she said. “He was, and still is, one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He would talk to everyone, regardless of what clique they were in.”

He also dreamed big for college, setting his sights on the University of Southern California, a highly competitive school. His essay was about being adopted and what it meant for his identity. “Are those your real parents?” people would ask. “Have you ever met your birth parents? What country did you come from?”

He said being adopted, growing up in McKeesport and attending Shady Side Academy has allowed him to identify and relate with a variety of people from diverse backgrounds, an asset as an entrepreneur.

“I grew up in so many different environments, racially, economically, socially. I have used that to my advantage. I really have been able to look past those external factors and not be judgmental. I just look at the person.” He also likens the layers of his personality to the layers of chocolate and crunch and salt that go into his bite-sized creations.

He wasn’t accepted to USC initially. He enrolled at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and then transferred to USC in 2018 as a sophomore. He majored in communications at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and minored in music industry at the Thornton School of Music, graduating cum laude in 2021, as a first- generation college graduate.

During his first two years of college, he focused only on school and his many internships in the music industry, putting Zac’s Sweet Shop on the back burner. He threw himself into the music business with his usual vigor. His freshman year, he interned with Crunch Music, which managed artists like Sia and Lorde, braving an hour commute each way in Los Angeles traffic to get to the offices. The next year, he was an intern at Capitol Records.

He had stopped making candy, and one day he mentioned to his friends that he used to have a sweet shop.

“That is so cool. Why don’t you try it again?” they asked him.

He realized they were right. He did miss dipping strawberries and Oreos and pretzels in chocolate and decorating them. Even with a full course load and his budding career in the music industry, he would spend whatever time he could find on the weekends to work on his chocolate business. Initially, he wanted to open a storefront in Los Angeles, but he couldn’t afford that. Then he looked into a pop-up store, but that wasn’t feasible either.

He decided to go online and direct-to- consumer instead and used a Kickstarter campaign to finance the launch of in October of 2019, his junior year. Six months later, the pandemic hit. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

“It was really, really tough to stay afloat,” he said. “It was a nationwide launch with no media, no marketing, no PR, just word of mouth.”

Even if he could barely afford to pay his $2,000 a month rent for his business, his other career in music was progressing well. In 2020, he interned at KYN Entertainment, first as a digital marketing intern before being hired as an artist manager, overseeing the girl band called Boys World. He helped book gigs, did marketing, set up meetings and otherwise managed the artists. “It was so much fun. I am grateful because I learned so much and grew as a person – personally and professionally.” 

But it was hard having one hand in the music business and another in the dessert business. In March of 2022, he left KYN to devote himself full-time to Zac’s Sweet Shop. He is still riding the Beyoncé bump in sales as more people discover his sweets.

When people refer to him as an overnight success, he reminds them that he has been hustling to sell his chocolate-covered delicacies from the time he was 13.

“Nothing happens overnight. And a lot of the times people forget that I started this business almost 10 years ago. It’s been a crazy adventure.”

He has recently moved to a bigger kitchen – “five feet bigger, but hey, it makes a difference,” he said. He also hired two part-time employees and increased the weekly order volume significantly. “We also have obtained clients like Google, Disney, Hulu, American Express and Amazon, and have catered television and movie premieres for Coming 2 America 2, Black-ish and Michael B. Jordan’s drive-in series. “To think that my sweets have been enjoyed by celebs like Jason Momoa, Yara Shahidi and Selena Gomez is just amazing.”

“There have been so many amazing bakeries, cookie shops and cupcake shops that have reinvented the wheel, but I think that no one has disrupted the chocolate confectionery space like I have in a long time. I’m excited to grow and reach as many people as I can across the country.”

As always, Zac Coughlin is thinking big.