Overdraft: Starting Over—and Making Caramels—from Scratch

Portrait illustration of Rowena Montoya, the founder of Julie Ann Caramels, wearing a peach shirt and eye glasses.

In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.

Rowena and Frank Montoya lived a comfortable life that allowed them to travel, raise five children, and help less fortunate family members get back on their feet. During their heyday, Rowena often joined Frank on business trips, making her homemade caramels to give to his clients. But in 2009, everything changed. Frank’s business—the family’s primary source of income—was pulled out from under him in the midst of the financial crisis in the United States. The couple was forced to sell everything and start over.

While Frank was rebuilding his business, Rowena discovered that her caramels might have a market of their own. Though banks didn’t come through for her, she bootstrapped to take her candies from a hobby to a successful business while the couple lived on a fraction of their former income. Rowena still worries about being able to cover rent and payroll, and she can’t quite feel successful until she can provide for those less fortunate. But her JulieAnn Caramels are now carried in stores across the US and have even been featured on the Home Shopping Network.

Here, Rowena shares their story of starting from scratch—and what motivates them to keep going.

In Rowena’s words:

My husband Frank owned a business in the transportation industry and was very successful. We had personal bankers. We were able to adopt a child. We were able to help elderly family members with mortgages. We were able to travel the world and do service in other countries. We had a very different lifestyle than we do now.

I had started making caramels for my husband to get people to come to his table at trade shows around the United States. It didn’t matter where we went, people were always like, "Where can I buy them?" And I was like, "You can't." But that was where I was testing the market.

It was hard just to get out of bed and start breathing.

Frank had about 17 employees and agents working for him. Then in 2009, a national company came in and recruited them and asked for their book of business. It was a hostile takeover and seven of his best salesmen left. That left us with a lot of debt. Frank ended up having to shut his doors. We sold everything, claimed bankruptcy, and started over.

It was depressing. It was hard just to get out of bed and start breathing. Something like that can not only devastate your relationship with your significant other, but also your whole family can crumble. And that wasn’t going to be an option for me. So, I had to reach back to when I went through a devastating thing with my mother. I told myself, "You’ve been through hard things, and it’s always worked out for you."

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I grew up with a single mom, and we were very poor. Then, my mom died when I was 15 years old. There were four kids, and we were separated to live with different family members. Luckily, I went to live with my aunt Nancy Ann who is very close with her family, especially her sister, Julie. That’s why my company’s called JulieAnn—because it’s named after great women who changed my life.

I traveled with Frank for two years, trying to build his business back up. During the transition, we started taking JulieAnn Caramels to more boutiques, and doing corporate gifting. I was also taking classes at a small business center. I don’t have a degree in business—I’m a hairdresser by trade, and I raised five kids.

I have everything I need.

My business is still building up a brand name. Most companies spent thousands and thousands of dollars doing that, and I’ve done it on a shoestring and bootstrapped the whole time. The banks are still like, “No sorry, no money for you.” So we live meekly, as low as we can in order to support this. But we’re getting big orders, like from (retailer) World Market and local grocery stores.

I have everything I need. We’re renting a little 1,200-square-foot home when we were used to owning three or four times that size because we always had people living with us. Frank and I both make a conscious effort to change other people’s lives. That’s more important to us. More important than making a million caramels. We’re no longer able to be that security that everyone can go to for help. That’s probably one of the hardest things.

Success means not worrying if I have enough money to make payroll or pay the rent.

People are always like, "Oh, you’ve done so well," and I say, "Have I?" I don’t feel like I’m there yet. The cash flow is tight. Really tight. Success means not worrying if I have enough money to make payroll or pay the rent. It’s still a teeter-totter. Sometimes I think that we’re stretched just as far as we can be. And, you know, we have to dust ourselves off and keep going. I’m not a quitter. I’ve taught this principle to my children, and so now the roles are reversed, and they cheer me on. And I can’t give up, because that’s not what I taught them to do.

Illustration by German Gonzalez