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Reno-based college student turns spicy candy into sweet success

A young woman smiling while holding two bags of candy.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Julissa Garcia sells spicy candy at a Day of the Dead event in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 29, 2023.

Lea en español.

For most college students, candy is just a snack or a treat. But for Julissa Garcia, candy is also a source of income. Julissa’s Pica Pica Candy sells Mexican spicy candy online and at local events.

On a Monday evening, Garcia arrived home from work, but she didn’t have time to rest. The 19-year-old had two pickup orders of spicy Gushers and peach rings to fill.

She started by weighing the candy and mixing it with chamoy sauce in a medium size bowl.

“I just put it [the candy] into the bowl, and then once they’re in, I get my chamoy mixture, and I put it into the bowl,” Garcia said.

Most of the sauces and powders Garcia uses are shipped by her family in Mexico. That’s what makes her candy different and authentic, she said.

When everything was mixed up, she packaged the candy in small bags.

“I already have my bags pre-labeled and opened. I got these little wider funnels just to avoid the mess and make it easier to be put in,” she said.

A close up of a person mixing gummy candies with chamoy in a bowl in her kitchen. There is another bowl on the table with chamoy.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Garcia mixes gummies with chamoy in her kitchen in Reno, Nev., on Nov. 14, 2023.

At her young age, Garcia keeps herself busy. Aside from her small business, she goes to college and works at a diner in South Reno.

“As soon as I get home from work, I start unpackaging the candies, the chamoys, the chilies that I use, and then I just start mixing them together. I weigh them, clean them, package them, and then send them off to whoever orders,” Garcia said.

She has managed to multitask homework, work and orders. And while she sometimes gets tired, she maintains a positive attitude.

“I have super long days at work if we have extra work catering. I spend maybe like 12 hours at work, come here, and then have more orders, and then go back to do more homework. It does get tiring. But with making the candy, it’s my calm time. I’m able to listen to my music and just sort of zone out, get the orders done. It’s my hobby,” she said.

Garcia decided to turn her hobby into a business when she was in high school. On a family trip to Mexico in 2021, Garcia found her passion for dulces enchilados and decided to make candy at home.

“There’s a lot of local vendors in Mexico who sell them everywhere. And from there, it was my uncle who said ‘why don't we just make them at home?’ And I was like, ‘you're right,’ ” she said.

Back in Reno, Garcia tried different recipes and started selling candy during lunchtime at school. It was slow at first, but then she suddenly began selling hundreds of bags every day.

“My own teachers were asking me for orders, and the principals, the administrator’s office ladies, were asking me for the orders,” she said. “I had like a designated place by the school library on the bookshelf, where everyone knew that that’s where I was with my friends, with my boyfriend. And I just had like a bunch of candy that I brought in bags and backpacks.”

Garcia is now a full-time student majoring in psychology at Truckee Meadows Community College and has been able to reach a wider audience for her business. She makes different kinds of candy, such as Gushers, peach rings, Skittles and tamarindo apples. All with her signature spicy twist.

Julissa’s Pica Pica Candy now gets around 40 orders a week and she’s participated in several local events and festivals. She gets help from her family and boyfriend.

Garcia credits her mother, Carla Sandoval, for being her biggest inspiration and mentor. Sandoval has been selling affordable jewelry for over 10 years.

“She’s what’s molded me into being able to have my business,” Garcia said. “With the vendor events, the reason I got into them was because of her. I used to be really scared. ‘Oh, what if I fail?’ And her response was, ‘What if you succeed? You’re gonna succeed.’ And that’s what’s pushed me to keep going with my business.”

A mother and daughter are smiling while standing behind a booth featuring their products for sale.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Carla Sandoval (left) and Julissa Garcia sell spicy candy and jewelry at a Dia de los Muertos event in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 29, 2023.

Sandoval is really proud of her daughter and would like her to finish school and continue doing what she likes.

“She’s so successful now, and she does it on her own now. I just stepped back, and she takes care of everything. Just really proud of her,” Sandoval said.

Garcia said her small business has helped her mature faster, learn about time and money management.

She plans to continue her candy business after she graduates and hopes to expand it in the future. Her dream is to be able to give back to her hard-working parents and family in Mexico. She also hopes to inspire other young entrepreneurs, especially those from immigrant backgrounds.

“I’m praying that my business stays with me. By that time, I have a lot more people that know me. Apart from just saving as much as I can, it's giving back what I can for my family, my grandparents in Mexico, my uncles, my aunts in Mexico,” Garcia said.

Maria joined KUNR Public Radio in December 2022 as a staff reporter. She is interested in stories about underserved communities, immigration, arts and culture, entertainment, education and health.
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