In December 2002, Nicole was urged to find a way to make their nuts more accessible to everyone. She sold her special walnuts — which she describes as, “a little bit of sugar, a dab of salt and a whole lota love” — to the public at The Santa Monica Farmers Market, in Los Angeles. The nuts came in Chinese take-out boxes, with fortune messages, and they were a huge success.
Since their humble beginning, Fortunuts has become a successful gourmet food item, with assorted sizes, new unique packaging and made-to-order fortunes. Nicole’s Fortunuts now come in three varieties: Sweet & Salted Walnuts, Mesquite Walnuts, and Sweet & Salted Pecans Today, Fortunuts is available in upscale stores, online at Fortunuts.com http://www.fortunuts.com and in gourmet gift baskets.
We interviewed Nicole Simons, founder of Fortunuts about her successful gourmet nuts business and the challenges she faces.
The walnuts have been your mother’s recipes. When did you start thinking that the nuts can be a viable business? What was the specific instance that made you realize the business potential of the nuts?
I started to think that the nuts would be a viable business when I worked at Nordstrom I would bring them in as holiday gifts and all my co workers would urge me to try to sell them in the stores’ Gift Gallery department. In addition, they would start to ask me for the “holiday nuts” in October.
The specific instance where I knew I could sell them to the public rather than give them just as wonderful gifts was when I went to sell them at my first Farmer’s Market in Westwood and Sherman Oaks (California) and we sold out!
When did you officially launch Fortunuts.com? How long was the preparation to launch the business?
I launched Fortunuts.com about 6 months after selling at the farmers market consistently and gaining a bit of a following. People would not want to wait to get their nuts a whole week, or if they could not make it to the market etc…It took me 6 months of research to get it together. I wanted to make sure I had the perfect logo and package design that spoke about our product. The photography was amateur at first but once I got it up there, I was able to generate some income and hire a product photographer.
What is the concept behind Fortunuts? How do you differentiate your nut products from others in the market?
There are a few concepts behind Fortunuts.
First and foremost we offer the highest quality delicious healthy tasting product on the market and at the same time giving customers a savvy, unique and sophisticated gift idea.
Not only great packaging but a fortune as well. We also offer custom fortunes for corporate, wedding and other special occasions. You can eat a great snack and find inspiration while doing so.
My product is FRESH And HANDMADE to order! We use no preservatives and simple ingredients that taste incredible. Our packaging is high end, clean and looks great on the shelf next to most anything. Also we are not only a great snack product but A GIFT item. You get to have fabulous taste while enjoying a bit of fortunate inspiration. We also offer a unique custom fortune concept which is very popular.
What was the most difficult part of starting Fortunuts? How do you describe your early days?
The most difficult part of starting Fortunuts was dealing with the FOOD ASPECT. I could not find a commercial kitchen. There are a million FDA laws that I never even thought about when all of this nut stuff popped into my head. I thought you could just cook in your own kitchen (ha ha ha ha). That was my very FIRST A HA moment.
My early days were half “living the dream” creating something and half “Oh my goodness what have I done!” When you do something like this where it takes so much creativity, you always have a ton going through your head. At times, you are not sure where to draw the line or keep exploring.
For example, I decided on what the logo looked like and then for days I would still be looking for the right thing! I really had a hard time trying to focus without a regular structured day as I was used to in the corporate world. You really have to schedule everything out. I would stay up for hours doing research and more research on similar products. I would then get caught up on the minute details and forget that I had a bigger picture to deal with. I truly went with the flow of how things came to me.
In retrospect I would certainly have done some better planning on building the business rather than “flying by the seat of my pants”.
How did you finance the business? What were the challenges you faced during the financing stage?
I only have one thing to say- AMERICAN EXPRESS and my FAMILY!!! And of course word of mouth. Things happened so fast that I really had no choice. I did not ever have a business plan — although I’m not sure how many people are successful just because they had one. Everyone tried in every way to help us whether it was with their physical labor, etc or money to invest. We have so many fans who have become supporters and angel investors.
Aside from the website, how are you marketing your nut products?
- Word of mouth- when it comes to food, your fans are your best testimonial
- We have a fabulous PR firm that always keeps us in mind when things come up. We have been so lucky to have received so much press in so many different areas from Oprah to Alaskan Airlines, Redbook, and In Touch Weekly
- In the beginning, we did trade shows and gift shows and had food reps. But after working really, really hard and not truly growing the business 2-3 yrs into that we changed our business strategy and decided to focus on an entirely different market. We went from selling wholesale (to stores) to mainly doing retail now (corporate and web).
- Also connect with what you know—for example when I was planning my wedding I realized there weren’t really that unique of favors available so I incorporated that into our marketing—brides love to share their finds!
- Holiday gift-we try to market and push this in as many ways as possible this quarter is our big time and we send out cards as well as emails to our core fans.
How are you balancing the demands of a successful business, family and other interests?
It’s called breathing deeply! As a mom of two toddlers I have to really break things up into bite size pieces.
That has taken some getting used to and still is a struggle to this day. When September hits – my life goes into overdrive and everything is “NUTS”! we really do most of our business in 4th qtr since we are such a great unique gift item. I have learned to organize myself better and to try to take on only what I can handle.
In all honesty, I am not a great role model on balancing to take care of myself! I have to be forced to go and get a mani/pedi and do things for me. Having 2 little boys has been very challenging, and I am usually putting their needs first (as most moms do). It’s my friends and family that remind me how much people love our product and that is always a nice injection of motivation! Also I do know as women we tend to be superheroes and it’s key to step away and replenish self to step back into the arena and be not only a better mom, but a smarter and focused business owner.
What are your expectations and future plans for Fortunuts? How do you see your business 5 years from now?
My immediate plans for Fortunuts is to upgrade our packaging and become less wasteful and more environmental friendly. We want to start using eco friendly bags to package with and move towards soy based printing –we’re very close!
We plan on adding 2 new flavors/nuts per year.
Our other focus is to expand our hotel/hospitality industry business. I think that is where we can get the best bang for our buck. We think this is a huge growing market for our product and we have a handful of partners in this industry who have demonstrated the demand for this product in various areas within hospitality.
What lessons do you wish to share to other entrepreneurs?
This can be answered two fold ….
Firstly I think my not spending sooo much time obsessed with what my “plan” was, was actually a gift. I dove in and trusted my instinct and really created a product that was authentic to me.
- Know what you are getting into! If I knew how much it took to build and sustain a food business I may have decided to sell some t-shirts! – research research research….
- Have your pricing and profit modules set up – and continue to look at them- they are ever changing.
- Surround yourself with the right PEOPLE- it is #1 important thing!
Keep your feet in the water as to what is going on in your industry and the latest news on all areas of your business.
Keep it interesting, keep changing things up a bit, add flavors, tweak your website always appear to be fresh and on the front lines of what’s is going on trend wise etc!