Jami Curl: Queen of Candy

Jami Curl Factory Photo.jpg

Jami Curl is many things; author, mother, candy maker, business owner is just the shortlist. We wanted to interview her as we’re huge fans of her candy-making cookbook Candy is Magic, as well as the small batch candy company she owned in Portland named QUIN. During our interview she shared about how trademark battles can turn your whole world upside down (even if you’ve done everything to legally protect your brand!), and the responsibilities of leading a team. Check it out!

Hello hello! Can you tell me a bit about what you’re up to these days?
I do a variety of things! The first is that I’m teaching candy making classes. I just finished and it just went live – a candy making class through Craftsy [ed note: Now Bluprint] online, which was just purchased by NBCUniversal. My class was one of the first classes they did in a new way. It’s been fun.  There’s 6 lessons and I teach basically every kind of candy you’d ever want to make. We did a lot of interesting stuff with camera work and hilarious bits here and there – they built a set custom from candy, which was a beautiful set. So that is happening.

And then right now I’m writing a baking cookbook for Ten Speed Press which is coming out in the early spring of 2020. Which, when I say it, seems like a long time from now, but when I look at the work I have to do with it, is basically tomorrow-- it feels like. So that has been fun. I’m also currently teaching a series of classes at my library. Letter writing! One is a “How to Write Letters” class and the other is a series of classes where we’re trying really hard to form a pen pal club at the library, but I have started it under the guise of letter writing and what you can use to write letters on, things you can find, how to make a correspondence kit so you always have your letter writing materials with you, how to figure out who to write letters to these days because people don’t write letters anymore... so doing that.

And then I teach a couple of classes on innovation. I’ve done that for a couple of schools around Portland. Oh! And I also am a volunteer college essay mentor, so I go to high schools where juniors are writing applications and I help. And then the thing that I do to make money--because a lot of that stuff is volunteer or very little pay--is that I am currently the COO of an online music education company. And I am a Mom! So I do a lot of things, all at once.

I have always done multiple things at once because I have a lot of interests. And QUIN obviously has always been my first love. Prior to QUIN I owned a bakery, so I have always loved treats, making treats, and teaching people how to make treats. It was not until this year that QUIN was--we were--roughed up in a trademark dispute. Not really a dispute. There was another company that wanted the QUIN trademark. And after sort of a long--not a battle, but a long series of emails from lawyers, and this and that from lawyers, and bills from lawyers--we ended up essentially surrendering the QUIN trademark. The legal bills were so high and it got to be a very tiring fight, if that makes sense. Right now QUIN doesn’t exist as a candy company because we don’t own the name as it applies to candy anymore. Someone else took it, basically. I don’t know.  There’s a lot of mysteries in life, but that’s my big mystery in life right now-- what will happen next for the candy company formerly named QUIN.

I didn’t realize that someone else could swoop in like that!
Well, here’s the crazy thing – we did everything we needed to do to protect the name QUIN as it applies to the way we were using it. We had a trademark for over 5 years, put all the money and effort into doing that and then built a brand about that. I don’t usually do anything without making sure we can do it first. So, obviously, do what you’re supposed to do. We filed a trademark for the name, used an attorney to make sure that patent and trademark office looks at your application fairly and awards it. They don’t just give you a trademark because you’ve applied for it, they actually do research to make sure that what you’re trademarking, no one else has it trademarked, or that there would be no confusion. So this other company kind of presented it as confusion. Even though they don’t make candy. But it turns out they were pretty aggressively going after anyone with that name, even dog supplements.

It wasn’t that I thought “Oh, let’s name the company QUIN,” and I didn’t do anything to protect it. I did all the things you’re supposed to do, but it goes to show that even when you’re at that point and you feel protected, somebody who has the money and the energy to outlast you, can. We could’ve gone into an even longer legal battle and gone to court, but I didn’t start a candy company to spend 3 years in a battle with someone. And that’s kind of my basic philosophy of life, which is that I obviously want to make money so I can have a livelihood and support my kid and all that. But I also don’t really want to spend time doing something that makes me miserable or makes me doubt myself. And, in the end, when you are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop or a call from a lawyer, that’s how the last 18 months/2 years of QUIN was spent. It’s a crazy thing because it’s something that I loved.

It’s never an easy decision because we had a whole staff I had to consider. But it got to the point where it was too crazy to continue fighting for it. So now we’re at this pause and figuring out what to do next.

Wow – that is so frustrating! I am so sorry that happened to you!
If anything, it’s helpful as a story to tell people who are starting out, or have a small business, once you have that trademark in place and you’re using it, and you’re using it in the ways that you’re supposed to be using it, it’s interesting see that somebody who has more money than you can come along and make a play for it.

Do you think you would want to start QUIN 2.0 but with another name?
Yes. I have no plans to give up hope on it. That’s what I think has been the hardest for people to understand. This isn’t information that I have spread widely, didn’t give an explanation for what has happened to QUIN, most people don’t even know. I haven’t closed any doors or made any huge decisions. I have our recipes and the way that we did things still on my side so yes, no real decisions made and I’ve just been regrouping a little bit these last few months to figure out how I feel. I want to get to the point where it makes me happy again rather than being something that I am only worried about.

Well, since QUIN 2.0 is on the horizon and you are indeed a candy-making expert, let’s talk about that for a bit! Was there a seasonality to running Quin?
Yes. Any holiday that you can think of where candy is given or candy can be thought to be given, so Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, those types of holidays, we had definite upticks. And Valentine’s Day. The summer months are always difficult for two reasons. It’s a little bit slower and it’s so hot almost everywhere we ship candy. And that was always a worry, making candy in a place like Portland, where if the air conditioning in the room where we make the candy stops working, then what do we do with all of our inventory? All of it is so sensitive to heat. So, the seasonality of it is something you plan for. You look at the calendar every year and you can figure out production ahead so that you know at Christmastime you’re going to need XYZ, for seasonal products like an advent calendar.  We would start planning how we’d make enough candy to fill all orders for our own store and for shipping online for Christmas in July.

It was almost as if you never really knew what month it was because in the summer, it’s Christmas and at Christmas time it’s the summer. And then you have to try to figure out how to make the slower times as short as possible so that everybody who’s working is busy enough and so that you are not making too much candy. Because one of things about QUIN is that our candy is very fresh and we don’t sell anything that’s old. We’re not aiming for a long shelf life with any of it. During the times that are slow, you could say “Let’s just make a ton of candy right now and save it for the future XYZ holiday,” but we never liked to do that because it’s anti what the ethos of the company was.

Was that was one of the trickier things to figure out?
Production and numbers – figuring out too much or too little. And storage of candy was always sort of a stressful thing. The one thing I didn’t mention before is that the other side of it is, if you’re running with a lean staff so that you know during the slower times you don’t have to lay anyone off, then during the really busy times the employees who are making the candy are working really hard to get a lot done. It was always a little bit of stress to figure out exactly how. Thankfully, markets change, and from year to year things are different, which keeps it interesting. But that also means once you figure something out, you basically start re-figuring it out-- it never stays the same.


Was everyone on your team full time?
Yeah, all the candy makers were full time. And people who cut and wrapped the candy were also all full time.

I was wondering if that was done by hand or if there was a cutting and wrapping machine!
We did invest in a machine that we bought from a company in New York that was vintage. Yeah, it didn’t put cut pieces in [wrappers], but you put cut pieces in it and it wrapped it all. There was an incident when we were moving from one factory space to another and the machine fell off the back of the moving truck...yeah.

How large was the entire QUIN team?
We had 16 people including someone who did customer service. And  including someone who worked at our retail store.

That’s a big team!
When I owned bakeries, my team was always over 30 people, so I was always relieved because it reduced the amount of time spent doing HR and things like that because it was less people. But throughout my career working with individuals, I’ve had highs and lows with being a manager, if that makes sense. At some points, I really, really enjoy it and then at other points it was something that I would look to another manager to do for me.

But at the end, the point of doing these types of businesses is that you have this whole team of people who are there, willingly helping you achieve this vision or this dream that you have. And for that reason alone, I always endeavor to treat the people who are working in the best possible ways in terms of how much money they are making. Then you know people are willingly helping you. Yes, they’re getting paid, but they still could go and choose to do whatever they wanted. But they’re there, with you, trying to see this thing through. And it’s the most humbling thing, to lead a team in that way.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

Thank you so much, Jami! It was such a pleasure getting to learn more about what you do. Readers, after running off to appease your sweet tooth, come back next week for a wise and thoughtful how-to from Jami that’s all about finding your magic.