Almond Joy

Maisie Jane Hurtado takes the family tradition into tasty new areas

Maisie Jane Hurtado jokes that 17 is the magic number in her family. That's how old her grandfather, Bernard Bertagna, was when he started an almond business. Maisie was the same age when she founded Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products, which sells homegrown flavored almonds online and in stores. Hurtado, 31, runs the 12-person, $2.1 million Chico (Calif.) company with her husband, Isidro.

My great-grandfather came from Italy in the early 1900s and settled in California, where he had almond trees. My grandfather, Ben, bought 10 acres of almond orchards when he was 17. My father learned the trade from him, eventually becoming my grandfather's business partner.

When I was growing up, our house was in the orchards. We rode horses and in the winter played mud football there. In the summer, I would work in the orchards. Now my brothers farm them with my father.

During high school I recalled hearing my grandpa and father and uncles complain that almonds are undermarketed in the U.S. I did some research and found that California grows 80% of the world's almonds, and only 10% of that stays in the U.S. At the time, there were few flavored almonds on the market, especially dry-roasted, which are healthier than the traditional deep-fried almonds. So I saw an opportunity.

My mom used to roast almonds and flavor them with tamari. She also mixed caramel corn with almonds. I came up with four flavors—cinnamon, coffee, tamari, and caramel corn—and started selling them in 1993 to specialty stores, farmers' markets, and the local Safeway and Raley's. For startup money, I sold my flock of sheep, getting about $1,200 for six sheep. I also used money from an organic garden I ran with my sister, and I waitressed.

I made the snacks in my mom's kitchen, but after two months I got a call from the health department. They wrote me up because I wasn't using a certified kitchen, but I wasn't fined. From 1994 to 1998, I made the nuts in local bakeries and restaurants, renting their kitchens during off-hours. I was going to community college and roasting the almonds at night. I introduced two flavors: country herb and garlic and cowboy barbeque. You always have to have new products to sell. And consumers' taste buds vary dramatically, so I needed a good mix of sweet and savory flavors.

During the day I was making deliveries, going to school, and doing bookkeeping. I quit school in 1997 and the next year started leasing a kitchen. That facility had a small storefront. I decorated it and made it into a store where we sold our products as well as those from other local businesses. I hired four full-time people to handle the manufacturing and two people to run the store.

I got married in 2000. My husband, who has a degree in construction engineering, had grown up around farming. In 2002 he started working with the business as a partner and production manager. That year we got a bank loan, sold a house in Colorado that we had built, and started buying an 80-acre orchard.

We're expanding; we began exporting to Canada three years ago and Hong Kong this year. As organic products become more mainstream, we think a lot of new doors will open for us. We feel we've barely scratched the surface.

Getting to where we are and starting as young as I did, it was a lot of work. But I don't think I missed out.And I'm so happy I started [the company] when I did. I had all the time and nothing to lose.

As told to Amy Barrett

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