Taste of success
Nov./Dec. 2008 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
She was 17 when she founded her company, Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products, which sells flavored almonds and other products.
Entrepreneur turns school project into thriving business
The gift baskets sold in Maisie Jane Hurtado's store and online business often include a variety of her own nut products as well as other items from local agricultural producers.
While other high school students were just on the verge of figuring out where they might want to go to college or what to major in, Maisie Jane Hurtado had a "light bulb" moment that set her on course toward what is now a thriving family business.
She was 17 when she founded her company, Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products, which is based in Chico, a city in Butte County, and sells flavored almonds and other products. Hurtado runs the company and retail store with her husband, Isidro. They also grow their own nuts and source most of the rest from her family of almond farmers.
Growing up, Hurtado often heard her father, uncles and grandfather complain how the sweet, buttery nut was under-marketed in the States, and how California grows most of the world's almonds but nearly all the crop was exported.
"I pondered on that," Hurtado said. "Why can't you go into every store and buy a large assortment of different almond products?"
In 1993, when Hurtado was still a junior in high school, there were few flavored almond snacks on the market. She saw an opportunity and ran with it.
She decided to develop her own almond product as a project for the National FFA Organization, an agriculture education program formerly known as Future Farmers of America.
With the help of her mother and aunt, Hurtado began experimenting with different recipes. Her mother used to roast almonds with tamari, a type of Japanese soy sauce. Using her mother's recipe, tamari-flavored almonds became one of her first almond products. Another was caramel corn and almonds, also her mother's recipe. Three others followed: cinnamon glazed, orange and spice, and country herb and garlic.
"Even early on, I knew I wanted to be part of agriculture, but I didn't want to necessarily be farming," said Hurtado. "So I thought this might be something that could be fun for me and different in the industry."
The blossoming entrepreneur that she was, Hurtado researched her market and even called Blue Diamond Growers, the almond-marketing giant, as well as other retailers to pick their brains for ideas.
She knew right away that she wanted to oven-roast her nuts because many of the almond snack products on the market at the time were deep-fried.
"I knew that was one aspect that I could really be different from the little competition that was out there," she said.
For startup money, she sold a flock of sheep she was raising for FFA, getting about $2,000, and bought her first ton of almonds from her family's orchard. She started selling her flavored almonds to local grocery stores and at farmers markets and festivals.
"It just started out really small like that," she said. "I was doing everything from start to finish. I was the bookkeeper, the delivery person and the baker."
After about two months in business, she got a call from the county health department wanting to know where she was making her product. When she told them she was using her mother's kitchen, the department informed her that the kitchen must be certified and gave her a stack of books with rules and regulations of criteria she had to meet in order to sell to the public.
"I remember at that point I was terrified, thinking, what did I get myself into? But my dad told me, if there's a will, there's a way," Hurtado said.
She started renting certified kitchens in town, hauling hundreds of pounds of almonds in five-gallon buckets to these facilities during their off-hours and roasting the nuts at night and on weekends. She'd package them up and deliver the goods to the stores herself.
By 1998, she was leasing a kitchen that had a small storefront and decided to open it and sell her nuts there along with other local products. She also started making gift baskets, which are now a mainstay of the store and company.
It was around that time that she met her husband. He was a senior studying construction engineering at California State University, Chico, when he sold her some paint at the True Value Hardware store where he was working part-time.
Isidro Hurtado removes almonds from a barrel roaster. This process is used in making some of the company's flavored nuts, which are in turn bathed in special sauces.
"I was going in there to buy supplies for the store," recalled Hurtado. "I think our first date was I had him come and help me set up the storefront."
Isidro said while he thought her operation was very small-scale, he was struck by how many customers she had and the fact that she was opening her own retail store.
"I thought she was very ambitious, and I was very impressed with what she had going on," he said.
Like Maisie, Isidro also came from a farming background, except his parents were migrant laborers. He grew up in the Hollister area around garlic farms and apricot orchards. His father worked in the fields while his mother worked in a cannery.
Maisie and Isidro Hurtado say they hope their daughters Natalia, left, and Isabela will someday take over the family business.
"I was not planning on going into farming," he said.
When he met Maisie, he had already taken a job in Colorado, and for two years they continued a long-distance relationship. They married in 2000 and Maisie moved to Colorado, running her business from there and flying back to Chico once a month. By then, she had hired a production crew, so she was able to focus more on marketing.
After two years, the business had started to take off. At the same time, Isidro's job was winding down, so the two sold their house in Colorado and moved back to Chico. They had enough capital from the sale of the house to purchase their own orchard. In 2002, Isidro officially joined the company as a partner and now oversees production and the farming of their 80 acres of almonds.
With his engineering background, Isidro also modernized and automated their production facility, speeding up the assembly line.
"Both of us have totally different strengths," Maisie said. "Where my weakness is in the business, he has really picked up those areas and made them blossom more with his strengths."
They purchased a new building in 2003 for their retail store, which has been expanded to sell more products from local farms and businesses. Maisie Jane's also introduced its first organic products in 2004. The Hurtados now farm about three-quarters of their almonds organically. All of their almonds are used in Maisie Jane's products. The company still purchases some of its nuts from Maisie's father, Ben Bertagna, as well as other local family farms.
Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products, which features gift baskets, wine and other local goodies, occupies a historic building in Chico that had been a country store for 50 years.
Today, the company employs 12 workers in production as well as at the store. They include Maisie's mother, Mary Jane, and aunt, Bobby Henry, both of whom not only helped create some of the flavored almond recipes for the company but have also worked in the store since it opened.
These close ties have kept Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products a true family affair, a tradition that the Hurtados say they want to maintain, even as the company continues to grow. Their hope is that their daughters, Isabela, 2, and Natalia, 6 months, will someday take over the business.
"My dad is very excited and proud because previously he would just sell to big brokers or other people. You don't have a connection to where your product goes," said Maisie Jane Hurtado. "I know my dad enjoys knowing that his almonds stay here in Chico and they're being roasted and packaged and sold to grocery stores with some kind of identity on them."
But beyond the "homegrown" nature of her business, Hurtado said consumers also are looking for that local connection with the products they buy.
"I think people are coming back to their roots and just wanting to have a deeper connection to their food and where it comes from," she said. "I think that's why farmers markets and the Slow Food movement have been so successful. There's definitely a growing population of people that appreciate knowing where their food comes from."
Supporting local farms
In addition to maintaining a hands-on, family-focused and artisan approach to Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products, the company continues to support the local farming economy by selling a variety of items from local producers in its retail store and online business.
Perhaps one of the most notable local products is wine from Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards in Chico, a company owned by Maisie Jane Hurtado's brother, Berton Bertagna, and his wife, Carol.
The Bertagnas began winemaking in 2001 and opened their own winery in 2007. Maisie Jane's retail store in Chico also provides wine tasting of the Bertagna wine. For more information, call 530-343-1623 or go to www.bertagnawine.com.
Other local items available at Maisie Jane's California Sunshine Products include:
- Penna Olives from M&CP Farms in Orland
- Organic rice from Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale
- Sundried tomato products from Mooney Farms in Chico
- Jams from Mountain Fruit in Chico
- Olive oil and soaps from Butte View in Oroville
- Olive oil from Lodestar Farms in Oroville
- Organic rice from Massa Organics in Hamilton City
- Mustards from Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico
Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.