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Heat-lovers getting fired up about Fargo's sweet-hot PicaSpicy Candies

A close-knit aunt and niece decided to try making the chili-powder-coated candy — currently a hot trend in Texas and Mexico — just for fun. But their slightly milder, "Mexican-Scandinavian" take on this fiery sweet is helping them sell candy locally, and all over the U.S. too.

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What started as a culinary experiment they tried for fun has bloomed into PicaSpicy Candies, a busy cottage business for niece-and-aunt team Larissa (left) and Liz Gonzales. Tammy Swift / The Forum
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Would you like a little more sizzle in your Starbursts? A bit more "Pow!" in your peach rings?

If you have a "heat tooth" as well as a sweet tooth, you'll want to check out PicaSpicy Candies in Fargo .

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Here's what the candy looks like after being covered with its spicy coating. / By Tammy Swift

The cottage business, run by Liz and Larissa Gonzales, an aunt-niece team in Fargo, has only been selling its chili pepper-coated candies since early May, but is already a hot seller.

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"We started making them, and it just kept selling and selling and selling," says Larissa Gonzales who, at 15, already shows the confidence and analytical powers of a seasoned entrepreneur.

'We just wanted to do something fun'

Larissa is the first to admit that their venture was fueled more by plain, old boredom than bold entrepreneurial dreams.

The Gonzales family is from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon in Mexico , but travels to Fargo-Moorhead in the summertime to do seasonal work. As the family makes this trek together twice a year, they are all close — but especially so in the case Liz and Larissa. They say they've always shared a special bond, despite their 19-year age difference. "I'm never at my apartment in Moorhead," Larissa says. "I'm always at Liz's house."

Last winter, when they were hanging out in the living room in their house in Mexico, aunt and niece were looking for an activity to break up a boring day. "We just wanted to do something for fun. At first, it wasn't even like a business matter."

They started checking out recipes for pica candy — also called Dulces enchilados ( "chili candy") on YouTube. Pica (pronounced PEEK-a) candy has been especially popular in Mexico and Texas for several years now, with big brands like Enchilados in South Texas, Yum Yum Gummies in California, and ChuMaChile making these combustible confections for sale.

"Down in south Texas, you'll see people selling these candies like in every block, at every corner," Larissa says.

With a basic recipe formed from their YouTube search, Liz and Larissa ran out to buy the proper supplies and whipped up a batch.

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Larissa pours candy into a small bowl so she can cover it with chamoy sauce, which helps the chili powder stick to the candy. Tammy Swift / The Forum

A kinder, gentler spicy candy

Although every pica recipe seems to taste a little bit different, they do share some common elements. The bonding agent is chamoy sauce , a favorite condiment in Mexico essentially made of dried fruits, chili powder, sugar and acidic citrus juice.

Once the candy is coated with the sticky chamoy, the candy is then covered in a chili-pepper mix.

Liz and Larissa did the required steps, but found their first effort to be a bit too blistering. It was overly sour and too darned hot.

"The first time, we were like, 'Eww.' We didn't like it," Liz recalls, laughing.

They thought the culprit might be too much Tajin Chili powder , a popular brand in Mexico, which is know for its spicy, tangy punch.

For their second round, they gave the Mexican treat a slight Scandinavian makeover: They dialed back the Tajin and substituted a milder, sweeter form of chili pepper. "It's sweet, but at the end, you get a little bit of a kick," Larissa says.

They coated the candies with the new mix — and agreed they had hit the flavor jackpot. "Ever since then, we knew exactly which measurements to use and we do the same thing every time," Larissa says.

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Their unofficial focus group of friends and family loved the second batch. Like, REALLY loved them. "They kept asking for them. They were like, 'Even if we have to pay you guys, we're willing to pay,'" Larissa says. "So we were like, 'Oh, should we actually start this as a business?'"

When you're hot, you're hot

With their perfected chili-powder formula firmly in hand, they decided to launch their product in the F-M area, where the concept of spicy candy hadn't yet caught fire.

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PicaSpicy Candies are shown here in Gusher, Skittle, Sour Patch Kids Watermelon and peach ring flavors. / By Tammy Swift

They worked with a cousin in Texas to develop menus, T-shirts and a logo: a mischievous-looking chili pepper cuddling up to a chili powder-dusted gummy bear.

They started selling PicaSpicy Candies, mainly through Facebook Marketplace, May 1. Aided by social media and word of mouth, sales soon took off. "We were definitely kind of scared at first, because this is not a very common business here," Larissa says. "But we were just shocked to see how the Fargo-Moorhead community — and even like Alexandria (Minn.) and Minneapolis — have just kept coming back."

Now, just 13 weeks after their launch, they estimate they've sold over a thousand packages of their candy and have shipped orders to Washington, Nebraska, Illinois and Texas. "It's just slowly spreading out," Liz says.

Their runaway bestseller so far? Gushers. It might be because the Gushers produce a burst of sugary fruit juice when you bite into them, soothing the palate as it processes the sour-sweet-salty-sizzling flavor bomb.

They have also successfully chili-fied Skittles, Lifesavers, Sour Patch Kids Watermelon candies, peach rings, apple rings, gummy worms, gummy bears, Sour Punch Straws and Xtremes. Customers can buy a sealed foil pack of one variety, or can get a trial pack, which contains two of every type of candy.

Sugar and spice for cold drinks on ice

The entrepreneurs have already added another product to their line: fruity rim dips, which add a sweet and zesty kick if drizzled over fresh fruit or used to coat the rim of a margarita, lemonade or another cold beverage.

So far, they offer the chamoy-based dips in three flavors: strawberry, mango and watermelon.

Although similar dips are available out there, Liz points out that their version uses fresh fruit vs. artificial flavorings or colors. She adds that the dip has turned the kids in their family into enthusiastic fruit fans.

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Liz Gonzales drizzles the duo's spicy-fruity rim dip over fresh fruit. The dip is also used to coat the rims of iced drinks. Tammy Swift / The Forum

People especially love adding the one-two punch of sweet and sour to their drinks when they plan to spend a weekend at the lake.

"We'll get people messaging us at 1 p.m. and saying, 'We're heading out to the lakes at 2:30. Can you have it ready?' And we'll be like, 'Oh my gosh, yes, of course!," Larissa says.

"We never say no," adds Liz, smiling.

PicaSpicy piques public interest

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Larissa Gonzales begins the chili powder-coating process by pouring the chamoy-covered candies into a container filled with their special spice mixture, while Liz waits to seal the finished product in 2-ounce foil bags. / By Tammy Swift

Pica candy isn't difficult to make, although it can be tricky to source just the right blend of ingredients, the women say.

"What is unique about our candy is that we actually get our ingredients from Mexico," Liz says.

Cousins and grandparents routinely send them large boxes of chamoy and chili powders, so they can create a spicy candy that's as authentic as possible.

The Gushers and candies are another story. The trend has grown so big in Texas and South of the border that it's virtually impossible to find the brand-name candies used to make them, they say. So whenever they see a candy sale at Walmart or any other local store, they stock up.

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"Dulce enchilados," or spicy candy, is made by covering a beloved, well-known candy, like Gushers or Skittles, in a chili-powder coating. / By Tammy Swift

In fact, their pantries are already jam-packed in anticipation of their first big public event: Kindred Days on July 31.

The two are still new enough at this side-hustle to be surprised when people seek them out and ask them to participate in events. "At first, we were like, 'Is this a scam? What is this?'" Larissa says, laughing. But once they realized the invitation was serious and the event is very real, they clicked into planning mode. Since then, they've been busy analyzing and debating over how much product they need to prepare and bring to their very first vendor show. "It's definitely going to be a learning experience," Larissa says.

"We're kind of excited to have our Mexican theme out there. It's going to be very colorful," Liz says.

Liz and Larissa realize there could be some "morning till night" days to make enough piquant pica sweets for the people. Especially when considering that Liz also has a regular job. "So I'm saying we're going to work maybe 7, 8, 9 hours for the event," she says.

If need be, their family will do as they've done in the past — stepping in to help. "When we get very, very busy, we have a big layout on the island and I'm making them, Liz is packaging them, someone's putting stickers on. So we are definitely very grateful that everyone helps out," Larissa says.

It's hard work to continue building their business, but they know what they need to do to be a success. "That's what any small business would hope for," Larissa says. "We really don't know what the future holds ..."

"But whatever it throws at us," adds Liz, "we're all for it."

Follow PicaSpicy Candies at www.facebook.com/PicaSpicyCandies

Related Topics: SMALL BUSINESS
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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