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WEST JORDAN — Three Utah businesses recently received a major honor in the specialty foods community, but for one budding West Jordan business, it’s more than just a culinary achievement.
Rather, it’s a reminder of love, family and perseverance.
Rowena Montoya, founder of JulieAnn Caramels, will travel to New York this week to attend a culinary conference, where she will be honored as a sofi Award finalist for best new product by the Specialty Food Association, which hands out awards to the top foods in the world.
“This award for me is — it’s giant because I’m still pretty little,” Montoya said. “We sell to nine stores here in Salt Lake. … It’s a huge, prestigious honor to win this. It’s almost — for me — like the Academy Awards, but in the food industry.”
It’s also a grand achievement for a business that has been around for just four years, despite its origins as a family recipe with an added touch of flavor.
Montoya, a native of San Jose, California, was 15 when her mother died and her aunts, Julie and Ann, stepped in to help raise her in Sacramento. Montoya was one of four children “dispersed among my mother’s family,” she said.
While with Julie and Ann, Montoya helped with catering to earn extra money on the side. It’s where she learned a caramel recipe handed down in the family, but also much more than that.
“I always tell people I’m not a product of what I was born into, I’m a product of someone’s love,” she said. “(They taught) me so many things, especially how to cook, how to work hard, how to be honest, how to have integrity (and) how to have courage.
“With the cooking aspect, they taught me how to not be afraid in the kitchen — to try new things and see what you can come up with.”
The recipes came in even more handy six years ago during a difficult transition in life. At that time Montoya’s husband’s business had closed after 12 years. Though that moment was rough, it inadvertently opened an opportunity.
“I had to reach back to the time that I was younger and say, ‘You can do this. You can get out of bed and you can move forward,’ ” Montoya said. “‘You can find something that you want to do.’”
“We have such great, great food here (in Utah) and great people and wonderful things. It’s a wonderful place to get national recognition and I’m hoping I can help bridge that for the state just because there are so many talented people here.” —Rowena Montoya
JulieAnn Caramels started out essentially as a gimmick to attract people to Montoya’s husband’s desk at trade shows all over the place. Montoya thought the caramel she made with her aunts might draw show attendees to a booth and possibly bolster business.
Receiving the recipe from her aunts, she did just that. The actual business began in 2012 as those visiting the booths asked where they could buy the caramel.
Eventually the recipe expanded as Montoya began experimenting ideas with fruits and chocolate.
“(I started) just doing lots of fun things with it,” she said.
The particular recipe that landed her as a sofi finalist was one for pineapple habanero caramel, and she joined Park City’s Ritual (best chocolate) and Salt Lake’s Creminelli Fine Meats (best product) as 2016 finalists from Utah.
Other finalists ranged anywhere from California to Italy and many places in between.
Though the JulieAnn Caramels, named after the two aunts that helped raise Montoya, remains the small fish in a vast ocean of fine foods, she hopes her business’s first honor will help expand the company outward.
While her company’s products are available in various places in Utah, and also Elko, Nevada, and Campbell, California, she recently struck a deal with Harmons grocery store chain. She also hopes the award will help expand business further, while also helping businesses across the country know Utah has plenty to offer in the culinary field.
“I have people calling me from North Carolina, Napa, California — I mean all over the place wanting price lists and samples,” Montoya said. “We have such great, great food here (in Utah) and great people and wonderful things. It’s a wonderful place to get national recognition and I’m hoping I can help bridge that for the state just because there are so many talented people here.”