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Curly Girlz
Curly Girlz Candy

Curly Girlz Candy, Paula Even Trenda

Title / Role: Founder
Location: Owatonna, Minnesota
Formed in: 2014
My successes.

Founded in 2014, Curly Girlz Candy has grown from a “mom & pop” candy store to a full manufacturing facility with a small retail. They have transitioned from offering sugared candies to exclusively Sugar-Free caramels, toffees, brittles, and chocolates using their own blend of natural alternative sweeteners. In 2017 they moved from their original location in Medford to downtown Owatonna. Currently, they are working on expanding their wholesale reach. Curly Girlz Candy can be found in a few dozen specialty retailers, as well as around 120 Hy-Vee stores.

“We've won a couple of different awards, which was obviously, nice. We were a two-time, MN Cup semifinalist. In 2018 we were named the Red Wing Ignite Cup winner and in 2020 I was named the Small Business Person of the Year from the SBA.”

What do you do?

“At Curly Girlz Candy we create a healthier candy option for everyone to enjoy, specifically that fits well within a keto diet or diabetic lifestyle.  We never use maltitol, so we're not going to cause the stomach upset that most people see from sugar-free candies. In addition, we're not using any artificial sweeteners or artificial ingredients that give it kind of that chemical taste that many other sugar-free candies have. It really is a gourmet handcrafted, sugar-free option, utilizing our own blend of plant-based sweeteners. One of the things I love the best is that we can give it to kids, especially the milk chocolate.”

Curly Girlz has a retail store in downtown Owatonna, Minnesota where they carry specialty local foods and the Curly Girlz sugar-free candies. Their products are distributed to wholesalers nationwide, including HyVee and specialty grocers and nutrition shops as well as sold online.

What inspired you to start your business?

“I always loved candy and I always enjoyed cooking with family. When I was pregnant with my now senior in high school, my sister ran across an ad for a certified chocolatier class, which I took. It started as a home-based business, making gifts for friends, and eventually, it snowballed, and we opened a store in 2014.

Originally, we were just your typical, mom-and-pop candies store.  We brought in all kinds of other people's candies, and nostalgic stuff from around the world, and we made only sugared stuff. I didn't carry sugar-free just because of the reasons that I said, and I didn't care for how they tasted. We worked with a nutritionist who primarily worked in the keto realm, and we learned a lot about the different types of sweeteners out there, and what they do to your blood sugar and your gut health. That's how we decided to create a sugar-free line of our own. We developed three caramels to start with, and now we have over 12 items year-round. We add specialties for Christmas and work with custom corporate gifts.”

One mentor helped us with traction stuff at a time when we were having some major growth problems. Lack of space, lack of people, lack of enough time to get everything out -- not a bad problem to have, but I was going crazy working so many hours.

What's special about your business?

“In 2019, we made the decision to transition to 95% sugar-free. We transitioned that way just because we felt it was a bigger niche. There are plenty of awesome, very delicious, and talented artists and chocolate makers in the sugar realm. But there's really nobody in the sugar-free."

What have been the high and low points of being a business owner?

“It's okay to make mistakes. I've made tons of mistakes. We partnered with a couple of people and it was just a nightmare. And then getting out of those wasn't the easiest thing and lost a little money doing it, but it was still good exposure. I know what not to do next time.

Most of our challenges have been either cash flow or employees -- getting enough employees or getting the right employees. Right now our biggest issue is probably supply chain and pricing. If we want to continue to do wholesale, we must build in the right margins for the wholesale customers as well but still be able to make a profit on each of the units that we sell. Our shipping cost is going up, and people don't want to pay for shipping, because they're used to the whole Amazon free shipping, and so it's trying to figure out how to balance all of this.”

What is your relationship with SCORE? SCORE client What influenced you to seek help from SCORE?

“In 2013, when I started seriously thinking about starting my own business instead of working a full-time job and doing this on the side and trying to manage family life, I learned that Owatonna has a Business Incubator. We met with Doug Johnson out there and he really gave us a lot of resources to look into. He put me in touch with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation here in Owatonna, and they put me in touch with some SCORE volunteers that could help direct us to create a business plan.”

How SCORE helped.

“After we had help with our initial business plan, it was another two years or so, before I was introduced to a couple of SCORE mentors who came to one of our peer group meetings. I was very impressed with the knowledge that they had. One mentor helped us with traction stuff at a time when we were having some major growth problems. Lack of space, lack of people, lack of enough time to get everything out -- not a bad problem to have, but I was going crazy working so many hours.

“And then our second score volunteer, Larry Haberman, is a really good numbers guy. We had questions about some trademarking, some expansion, and some other things, and in just our conversations and working with him I needed some other advisors besides myself and my mother.  We added Larry to our board of advisors, so he helps us once a quarter and we go through all of our finances and we talk about issues that we're having. And although he doesn't come from a food background, he comes from a manufacturing background. He can help look at the numbers and advise where to grow, where to cut costs, and how to be more efficient, which has been really helpful to us.

“And then we also have Janel Haugarth, she worked with SCORE out of the Twin Cities and also works with the MN Cup. She does have a food background, so we also have her as an advisor to help us on the food, distribution, and marketing side. 

I've also sat through a lot of different of the SCORE webinars. I did recently sit through one on buying and selling a business. We’re not buying or selling anytime soon, but it was helpful to hear what somebody would be looking for.”

What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a small business?

“Do your homework and research and be prepared not to make any money for a few years. You must have a good work ethic and enjoy what you're doing.”

What would you tell a fellow business owner about SCORE?

“Take advantage of the knowledge that most of the SCORE volunteers have. They had more knowledge on a lot of subjects that I didn't know. Especially if it's something that's not a strong area for you. That's why they're there to help and direct you to the right resources to help you grow.”

What have you learned from your experiences as a business owner?

“That it's not easy. You must be willing to take a risk.  If you're not willing to take a risk, then you probably won't have a lot of reward. Although a lot of entrepreneurs and business owners say I went into business so I could have a better work-life balance, and although that's true to an extent, if somebody doesn't show up, guess who's going to work.”

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