Sugar Rush

Meet Jami Curl, Portland's Candy Queen

With highbrow sweets and a wild new cookbook, the Quin Candy founder gets happy.

By Kelly Clarke May 15, 2017 Published in the June 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

see it. I see it all,” says Jami Curl, the self-taught sweets maker behind Portland’s Quin Candy. “When I think up a candy, I know what it should taste like, what it should look like.” That’s pitch-perfect Curl: excitable, resolute, and exacting as she crafts a high-end candy brand with a growing national following.

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Jami Curl, in a bouffant wig crafted from actual cotton candy

Since launching in 2013, Quin has mastered jewel-like candies that turn sticky-kid lollipops and gumdrops into chic party gifts bursting with Oregon ingredients and clever flavor pairings. Seed-studded blackberry lollipops glow like stained glass; her Oregon cherry chews make Starbursts taste like sawdust.

“Quin doesn’t really have an equal nationally—no one else has elevated that level of candy,” says Angela Bozo, a retail manager for New Seasons. The local grocery chain was an early adopter of the line. “We very rarely see people really trying to innovate in a category as much as Jami Curl is.” The brand is, indeed, impossible to disentangle from Curl herself. From the elated hand scribble across Quin’s boxes (“Candy Is Magic”) to the fantastic sugar experiments and day-glo things arranged neatly that traipse through her Instagram account, the candy maker practically secretes whimsy.

Now Curl shares her brainstorms in an ambitious cookbook, Candy Is Magic: Real Ingredients, Modern Recipes (Ten Speed Press), that hit bookstores in April. It’s an eye-dazzling mix of basic cooking/chemistry lessons and a luxury coffee-table topper, studded with saturated images of hard candy that recall geological surveys and precious stones. Between the book’s sheer aesthetic ambition and Curl’s chirpy, workaholic personal vibe, she speaks to an audience that cares about more than candy. Curl is (it seems safe to assume) the only candy maker ever to launch a recipe book with a pair of creative process talks at Google, which bought copies for all employees at its campuses in Mountain View and Venice, California. Then there was the Powell’s event featuring a human vending machine and a huge, faux “cloud” affixed with fizzy cotton candy.

“As a life metaphor, I like to throw the party. And host,” she says, spooning rich hot fudge made with Quin’s “Magic Dust” over a dish of marshmallow ice cream in the very, very clean kitchen of her cheery West Slope home. “I do not like to be the guest.”

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Clockwise from left: cookbook shots of Quin gumdrops, rosé to peach-ginger-black pepper; a how-to shot of pouring gumdrops into a silicone mold; Quin’s top-selling Dreams Come Chew fruity candies

The Ohio native has operated in a charm-with-an-iron-spine mode for years. In 2005, she ditched a successful marketing career for baking and started Saint Cupcake, the Portland shop that nailed the cupcake trend. She tapped a heritage that includes a maternal grandmother’s back-porch doughnut business, college years working at printing plants with her father, and decades of home cakes and candies. She sold Saint Cupcake in 2014, drawn instead to the new challenge of candy making—a notoriously tricky business she calls “next-level baking.”

Quin’s inner Southeast Portland production facility ties all those threads together. Every single Quin candy—popcorn caramel to pinot gris lollipop—is cooked, wrapped, and packaged by hand, in a space roughly the size of a 7-Eleven. Happy smells envelop you—a heady assault of rich caramel and bright fruit. “Mr. Sandman” trills on the speakers (though this is not always the case, staffers swear). A small band of workers stir pots of bubbling sugar, pour syrups into molds, and twist fruit chews into plastic wrappers—flinging each into a growing mountain.

These days, the company, which Curl runs with business partner Karla Arria-Devoe, has more orders than it can handle—with candies selling nationally and collaborations with brands like Portland’s Smith Teamaker, Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, and San Francisco’s Farm Girl Flowers. Her other creative partner is her precocious 10-year-old son, Theo, whom she runs new candy ideas past almost daily—often while they’re puzzling out brainteasers at their kitchen table.

“She is a magical person. But she’s willing to do the hard work [too]. She has a personality you want to work for,” says growth manager Heather Wallberg, brought on in early 2017 to help Quin ramp up production.

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From left: soft, vanilla bean–speckled sea salt caramels; vanilla, coffee, and chocolate marshmallows

Her 2015 pitch for the book—a fun, no-pressure guide to candy making—sparked a publisher bidding war, won by Ten Speed Press. She and photographer Maggie Kirkland shot candy for a week on a four-by-four-foot light board. The end result is mouthwateringly pretty and smartly written. The book begins with simple basics (popcorn-infused cream, roasted strawberry lemon purée) and works up to baroque projects like tiny piñatas and candy-encrusted dark chocolate bunny cakes. Peppered with twee illustrated technical explanations, Candy Is Magic is an epic creativity prompt delivered in Curl’s detailed, relentlessly cheerful tone.

The author’s determined happiness is by design as well—spurred, in part, by the deaths of both of her parents when she was in her early 20s. “After that, what’s left to be afraid of?” she says. “It is a key to me.” As she notes in her book’s intro, “Happiness, and working to spread it, is the only antidote I’ve ever found to suffering such profound loss.”

Up next: more book events, candy classes, and dual-flavor candy chews sheathed in crunchy shells. (Call them Skittles at your peril.) “I do things that are interesting to me. I don’t pay attention to what any other people do. It’s a really freeing way to live,” she says. Curl offers a chocolate–olive oil–sea salt lollipop. “I don’t want more time off. I want more time on.” 

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