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Sweet Spot: Hooped up on licorice

Health nut opens candy store on Commercial Drive

It’s 10 a.m. on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning, and I’m standing on Commercial Drive, thrusting my hips back and forth, furiously trying keep a hula hoop in orbit around my midsection.

Watermelon (real name: Mary Jean Dunsdon) passes another hoop to me, which I’m supposed to spin overhead, around my right hand. “Now, concentrate on your core,” she says. I reach up for the second hoop, promptly forget about my core, and watch as both hoops clatter to the ground. “It’s OK,” she says. “We have a hula hoop avalanches all the time.”

Watermelon is the owner of the Commercial Drive Licorice Parlour (1002 Commercial Dr.), which boasts more than 60 types of licorice.

It also happens to be Vancouver’s source of high-quality hula hoops, as well as gluten-free, dairy-free waffles. It’s an odd combination, and she knows it.

“It’s been 16 months and some mornings I still wake up and say, oh my God, I own a candy store,” says Watermelon, who might be better known as a watermelon vendor on Wreck Beach, marijuana pin-up girl and advocate, or host of an online cooking show called Baking a Fool of Myself. But what you might not know is that she’s a self-professed health nut.

“I’m probably the best person to own a candy store because I’m like the gatekeeper. I’m like, no more candy for you,” she laughs. In fact, the shop’s storeroom is remarkably low on licorice and candy. Instead, there are enormous bags of quinoa and almonds — Watermelon mills the quinoa into flour and makes her own almond milk. The flour and milk go into the shop’s quietly famous quinoa waffles.

Watermelon started selling single waffles as nutritious snacks, but it didn’t take long for word to spread. Now, she packs them 12 to a bag, freezes them, and watches them fly out the door. It seems that beneath the Drive’s easygoing demeanour, there’s a subculture of gluten- and lactose-intolerant waffle lovers.

And of course there’s the licorice. Sweet, salty, gluten-free, gelatin-free, sugar-free. They come in tubes, jellies, cats, farm animals, spheres and tablets. Watermelon starts me off with a Finnish allsort, a black tube surrounding a pale yellow, banana-flavoured centre.

“For some reason, this gets everybody. It’s banana and licorice, made in Finland. People come in and say, ‘I don’t like licorice,’ and I say, ‘Challenge accepted.’ And I give them this and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t mind that one.’”

From there, I try a softbite, which looks like a gumball but has a soft centre of salty-sweet licorice. And then she gives me a salmiak tube, which has a caramelly, molasses-y richness and a soft kind of saltiness. “Regular table salt is sodium chloride, but the salt in salmiak is ammonium chloride,” she tells me.

From there, we make our way through the salted options, and I finally reach my limit with a salmiak rondeau. It looks like a jet-black gumball, and inside is a soft centre of brown-sugary salmiak. The sweetness mellows — and then spins around to sucker-punch me in the face with salt as ammonia wafts up my nose. The experience is so captivatingly repulsive that I can’t wait to do it again.

Instead, Watermelon talks me back down to the sweet shelf, and we finish with a duo: half licorice and half wine gum, pleasingly sweet. Shortly after, I emerge from the Commercial Drive Licorice Parlour: smile on my face, licorice in my belly, and a hot-pink hula hoop slung over my shoulder.