The story of Nutty Steph’s starts at a Vermont gas station in 2003, when Stephanie Jaquelyn Rieke and her mother bought some granola as a snack. Her mom was unimpressed with what they tasted, and immediately knew that the granola Jaquelyn had been baking for many years in her home kitchen was far superior. Since Jaquelyn had just quit her job as a teacher and was seeking a lifestyle change, starting a granola company seemed like a great next step. Before she even baked her first commercial batch of granola, she had a website and the name “Nutty Steph’s” ready to go. (Nutty Steph’s was in fact named after Stephanie—about ten years ago she claimed her middle name, Jaquelyn, as her own, and gave “Steph” over to the business.) Once the granola was launched it quickly became the top selling granola in Vermont, not only because it’s delicious, but also because of its name: Nutty Steph’s Vermont Granola. Over the last fourteen years, many experiments and adventures have allowed Nutty Steph’s to expand beyond granola, to chocolate offerings, teaching financial literacy to the staff, and even its own storefront.
The recipe behind Vermont Granola originated from a cookbook on a South Atlantic oceanography course that Jaquelyn and a friend took during college. Although Jaquelyn loved to bake the granola on the boat, she didn’t bring home the recipe. But when her friend arrived back at college a few months later, he came with the recipe in hand, requesting that Jaquelyn bake it again. With only maple syrup to sweeten it, and oats and nuts to add a delicious crisp, Jaquelyn found her own rhythm with the recipe. As distribution across Vermont, and in Vermont co-ops in particular, increased, she knew it was time to dig into growing her business and expanding her product line. Chocolate seemed like the next logical step, mostly because she loves eating it! Since she had no idea how to make it, she brought a chocolatier into the company. They created flavors by simply starting with ingredients they loved; hence some of the offerings are much different than your average chocolatier’s: lemon-ginger-pecan (called the Pride Bar) or white chocolate-raspberry-mint (the Love Bar)—so delicious but at times a bit nutty, literally! Another thing that sets Nutty Steph’s apart from other chocolatiers is their use of real food ingredients, not extracts or natural flavoring, to make their amazing treats.
As we discussed sourcing, Jaquelyn enthusiastically yelled to me across the counter at her store: “It’s Everything!” She then began to indulge me in the finer points of sourcing their cacao from South American countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. The cacao is grown by indigenous farmers who own their land, and grow it within the forest landscape. During one of her visits to the farms she was informed that forest-grown cacao has richer soil because of the crop diversity, shade and constant flux of crops. This is in stark contrast to plantations where forests are clear-cut, leading to less nutrient dense soil. She believes that the forest-grown cacao creates her unique flavor of chocolate. As for oats, they have spent years trying to find a regional source, and recently switched all of their non-gluten free Vermont Granola oats over to Maine Grains, an organic grower in Maine. She is very pleased with the partnership as they “dry roll to order” every batch of oats purchased! When it comes to their maple syrup they have forged a long term relationship with End-O-Road Farm in Jericho, Vermont. Overall, sourcing is of tremendous importance at Nutty Steph’s, and is one way they try and differentiate their products from others in the marketplace, and support the ideals they believe in: local, organic, and farmer-owned.
When it comes to the cost of Nutty Steph’s ingredients, it is very high due to their dedication to using local and organic ingredients whenever possible. All of their confections and wholesale candy bars are handmade in Middlesex, Vermont, and they are always seeking the highest standards in their food safety practices, the precision of their recipes, and the love poured into the products. They never cut corners, and always keep back stock low to keep all of the granola and chocolates as fresh as possible. All of the granola is baked and mixed at a commercial kitchen, where they can mix the oats in a large commercial mixer and bake off individual batches. Their signature chocolate-covered granola products, Magic Chunks, were created by accident when they added chocolate to an under-flavored batch of granola and it turned out to be delicious!
Six weeks a year—that’s the amount of paid vacation employees of Nutty Steph’s receive after five years of employment. Jaquelyn doesn’t think anyone should get anything less at any job. She also prioritizes creating a sense of ease in the workplace, as she believes that emotional comfort is one of the largest contributors to productivity. She has an “open hiring” practice, which allows her to focus on hiring those who may need help building professional and life skills, and she puts a lot of weight on financial literacy with staff. While not mandatory, all employees are invited to a monthly two hour meeting about the finances of the company, including balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and other key metrics, and everyone who attends a specific amount of these meetings is included in profit sharing. Notating financials has given team members more insight into the importance of their day-to-day operational roles, for example how taking precise inventory impacts the measurement of cost of goods sold. Jaquelyn feels this is the best two hours of her month, and that these meetings have allowed the company to turn towards a more positive financial position. Someday she wants to bring her financial model to a national training level, as she believes it could be the key to other small businesses succeeding, and wants to share the magic.
What does the future bring for Nutty Steph’s? A new logo and tagline are coming in 2018, which will allow for all of their offerings to have consistent branding. Their new tag line will be “Unite in Joy”, which she hopes will truly create a positive affirmation for those enjoying the products and working at Nutty Steph’s. There will also be an increased focus on those products that are doing well so they can really refine their craft. Jaquelyn says she wants to focus on her wholesale accounts and her storefront, both of which give her the ability to build positive long term relationships. Her store and products are driving business, and with a new line of CBD-infused chocolates for both the store and wholesale she hopes to be at the cutting edge of that new chocolate craze. Speaking of driving the business forward, they are also in the process of making Nutty Steph’s a worker-owned business, and they have a five-year plan to do so with the help of Vermont Employee Ownership Center.
Don’t miss out on trying these delicious treats or buying some for a loved one throughout February. Visit the Co-op on February 1st and 15th from 2-5pm, or come to the Wine & Appetizers kick-off to Bratt Love Crawl— featuring Nutty Steph’s—on February 8th from 4-6pm!
By Jon Megas-Russell