I don't typically love marshmallows. Well, at least not the store-bought ones. But that being said, I also happen to live near Chicago—the city where the world's first marshmallow café was born. Although my personal grudge against sweet and highly-manufactured marshmallows had long prevented me from taking the journey to Chicago's XO Marshmallow, I told myself that this was finally the year to overcome my sweet marshmallow fears. 

Little did I know that XO Marshmallow's products are completely different from the processed ones that I had come to both expect and detest. When I was presented with the opportunity to visit XO Marshmallow to speak with co-owner Lindzi Shanks and to try some of XO Marshmallow's flavors and menu items, I took a marshmallow-eating leap of faith.

Q&A with Co-Owner Lindzi Shanks

Chicago's XO Marshmallow café opened its doors in June 2017. Co-owners Lindzi Shanks and Kathryn Connor began their business online before eventually moving into a full retail space. Now, they're selling their marshmallows both online and in-store to an ever-growing following of XO Marshmallow fans and customers. They usually offer anywhere from 15 to 20 marshmallow flavors at any given time. While the most popular marshmallow flavor has generally been salted caramel, it's now funfetti. I had the opportunity to speak with Lindzi about the ins and outs of her business, and I learned way more than anticipated.

What's the inspiration behind XO Marshmallow?

I used to own a clothing store called The Trendy Sparrow, and I had won a free pop-up shop for the holiday season. During the process of getting the shop set up, I was doing interviews, which is how I met Kat, my business partner. In her job interview, [Kat] mentioned she likes to make marshmallows. I was like, 'Well, I make coffee mugs. Why don't we sell them together in the shop and see what happens?' 

By the end of the holiday season, the mug-marshmallow combo was the most popular item, and at that point she had already been toying around with the idea of making marshmallows, so the name XO Marshmallow already existed, but it wasn't a business yet. We decided, when the pop-up shop ended, to turn it into a full-time business and open an online store that March [in 2016].

How'd Kat get into making marshmallows?

She went to law school. Her final year of law school, she needed an inexpensive gift that she could give—she's from a very big family—on a law student budget. She found one of those Pinterest-style hot cocoa in a jar things that also came with a recipe for marshmallows. So, she made it, and everyone was like, 'Okay, yeah, this hot chocolate, whatever, but these marshmallows are fantastic!'

She really enjoyed making them. She's always been great at baking. And, she just decided to toy with it. She, similar to me, finished law school and decided she didn't want to do law anymore just like I got my Master's in psychology and decided I didn't want to do that anymore. Luckily, we met each other right around the perfect time, and it's been marshmallow ever since.

How'd you come up with "XO Marshmallow" as the name?

Kat started calling it XO Marshmallow from the beginning just because she wanted people to realize how much it was made with love.

Can you tell me more about your "marshmallow of the month" system?

We always have a rotating marshmallow of the month, so right now it's s'mores. [For September], our chef had a crazy idea, so we're actually going to have six marshmallows of the month—one for each character of Friends because it's the show's 25th anniversary. 

Monica's flavor is going to be toffee because of the Christmas episode where she eats all of the toffee candy. Rachel's is going to be latte because she worked at Central Perk for so long. Phoebe is going to be banana for when she changes her name to Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock. Chandler's is going to be cranberry for the Thanksgiving episode where he makes the cranberry sauce. Ross's is going to be wedding cake because he's been married three times. Joey's is going to be pizza.

[Past marshmallow of the month flavors or special flavors have become permanent flavors], with the best example of that being butterbeer, which we launched for the anniversary of Harry Potter in September two years ago, and it went viral. ... It was so crazy busy. Even [for] people who placed their order the first week of September, we couldn't get it out until mid-October. So, that one became a permanent flavor because our customers demanded it. We tried taking it away, and so many people [wanted it back] that we brought it back right around November, and it's remained one of our most popular flavors ever since. 

How'd you go about creating your new Strawberry Hemp Marshmallows?

We've wanted to do a CBD or hemp marshmallow for a while now. Because we're very cautious people, we wanted to make sure we were doing everything legally and above board. Last December, when hemp finally came off of the illegal substance list, we knew that 2019 would be the year that we could [create the new marshmallow]. We use a non-THC CBD oil, and we launched it on 4/20 just because we thought that'd be cheeky.

We launched it originally as an Amazon exclusive. We always like to listen to our customers, and so many people demanded it be on the website and in the café that we ended up doing that, and it's one of our most popular items. We're already talking about more flavors like a special Christmas holiday hemp marshmallow and things like that.

Where do you see XO Marshmallow in a few years?

We're hoping we'll have a few cafés. We're really trying to build our online presence right now and are trying to get into more national retailers. We're looking for a pop-up shop right around Christmas this year closer to Michigan Avenue. 

I will say, the thing I really like about our company compared to any other marshmallow or sweets company out there is that we're more than marshmallows. We really consider ourselves to be more of a lifestyle brand. Our slogan is, "Live your sweet life," and that's not just in terms of actual sweets and sugars, but it's also in terms of being kind to other people, being kind to yourself, practicing self-care, [and] giving back to people. ... We're not asking [people] to eat marshmallows every single day, but being part of our fans—we call them Troop XO—is really about the community and the sweet life that we represent.

First Impressions: The Exterior

Zoe Engels

While driving down Chicago's North Sheridan Road, I found that XO Marshmallow was quite easy to spot relative to the other, more subdued restaurant and shop windows.

Bright lights hang decoratively from the interior ceiling, framing the windows of XO Marshmallow with a hint of cheer. Cartoon marshmallows and mugs decorate the window, as if beckoning for passersby to enter the friendly environment. A purple, neon side inside the café reads, "I love you s'more." Customers can see the sign before they enter the building, and they may think, "Well, I'd certainly love a s'more." That's definitely one of the thoughts that entered my mind as I walked into the cozy and quaint interior.

First Impressions: The Interior

Zoe Engels

The interior of XO Marshmallow is just as welcoming and cheery as the exterior. It's also very Instagrammable. The neon "I love you s'more" sign fills the café with a fun purple hue, and "XOXO" pillows throughout the room are inviting for both children and adults, staying true to the name of the café itself. 

When facing the entrance, the three steps leading down and into the café read, "You have great taste, darling!" And once you've scanned the marshmallow-filled interior, you'll definitely be ready for a taste. 

The Taste Test: S'Mores Marshmallows

Zoe Engels

The first item that I tried at XO Marshmallow was the August flavor of the month: the s'more. This was the first marshmallow I'd ever eaten that didn't come straight from a bag, so I didn't know what to expect.

I couldn't believe how fluffy these marshmallows are. They're airy and squishy in the best possible way—kind of like biting into a cloud, if one could do that. 

I was also shocked by how pleasantly sweetened the marshmallow was. I can only imagine that the marshmallows are made with quite a lot of sugar, but the s'more flavor didn't taste grossly sweet—and it definitely didn't taste artificial. 

Surprisingly, you can taste that graham-cracker-meets-chocolate flavor of a s'more. It has a chocolate undertone with a hint of that burnt undertone from s'mores and fire-cooked marshmallows. All those flavor profiles are compiled so perfectly into a singular marshmallow.

What Other Marshmallow Flavors are Currently Available?

Zoe Engels

XO Marshmallow's other marshmallow flavors include bourbon, butterbeer, cereal milk, champagne, cosmo, cold brew, cookies and cream, funfetti, Malort, lavender honey, Nutella, rose gold rosé, salted caramel, and strawberry hemp extract. With an array of ever-evolving and expanding options, I'd imagine that there's a marshmallow flavor available for every palette and preference.

What's the Deal with the Strawberry Hemp/CBD Oil Marshmallow?

Zoe Engels

Though I personally opted not to try the Strawberry CBD Marshmallow, its popularity and uniqueness certainly piqued my interest. A fellow café costumer mentioned that the marshmallows taste delicious, and the occasional Strawberry CBD Marshmallow helps her to relax for a good night's sleep.

At the Café: Chi-Cago Tea Latte

Zoe Engels

I asked Lindzi which menu item, while still successful, might not match the popularity of the rest. She recommended trying the Chai-Cago Tea Latte.

The tea itself is delicious. I found it comforting and especially delightful for a rainy day. The cinnamon in the tea latte is a great compliment to the burnt marshmallow that comes on top. If you tend to avoid cinnamon, then I'd recommend the regular Toasted Marshmallow Latte, which also comes with the burnt marshmallows on top. 

At the Café: What Else Should I Try?

Zoe Engels

A popular item at the café is Dat Cone Dough, which looks like a dipped cone from Dairy Queen. Instead, the inside is filled with both cookie dough and marshmallow for double the deliciousness. XO Marshmallow also has their spin on an Oreo cookie with a marshmallow center. Additionally, their Marshmallow Dream Bars look like fluffier, thicker versions of Rice Krispy treats, which definitely heightens the nostalgia factor. 

With so many marshmallow flavors and products to choose from at Chicago's XO Marshmallow location, you truly can't go wrong. From now on, I'll definitely be more willing to try marshmallows without incessantly scoffing at them first. And, I certainly won't be forgetting Lindzi's message. The entrepreneurial spirits of XO Marshmallow's female owners have definitely helped inspire me to live my sweetest life.