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Catch up with… Nicole Drives BS’11 Nutritional Sciences

AS A CHILD NICOLE DRIVES spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her grandmother, Laura Lee. “Lala” could make all kinds of wonderful food, but Nicole begged for them to make one recipe in particular—a nut confection called sugar and spice pecans. The scent of roasting nuts would fill the kitchen, and the resulting snack was crunchy and delectable.

Fast-forward to 2011, when Drives graduated from CALS with a degree in dietetics. She wanted work that would draw on her devotion to good food as well as her creativity, passion and discipline. Drives decided to take a bold leap by starting a business based on her grandmother’s treats.

With her parents’ encouragement, Drives wrote up a business plan, formed a limited liability company (LLC) and secured a $10,000 loan to launch her business in a shared commercial kitchen space. The process called for learning all aspects of food business start-ups. Food safety regulations, sellers’ permits, market niche, price points and product distribution became terms she would eat, sleep and breathe during 90-hour workweeks, a schedule she still maintains.

The name of her company? Lala’s Nuts, featuring pecans and walnuts in either “sugar n’ spice” or “bodacious bourbon” flavors. The nuts are finding a growing audience in the higher-end specialty snack market—online, a five-ounce bag costs $7.99—and are sold at nearly a dozen retail locations in Wisconsin as well as at expos, markets and festivals and directly to customers online.

This past spring Drives moved into her own commercial kitchen in the Madison Enterprise Center, an incubator for new businesses.

What’s your next move? I’m working on some new recipes featuring a mixed nut bag and developing a few new flavors away from the sweet—so I’ll be adding more savory and salty options. I also hope to expand into Chicago, Minneapolis, and then perhaps toward the South because pecans are so huge there.

In a recent presentation to a CALS nutrition class, you had some constructive things to say about making mistakes. (laughs) Oh, that I know I’ll make mistakes—but I try not to make the same mistake twice. Another food producer shared that with me when I started out. Because I’m the only one working in the business, I have to wear all the hats. And obviously I’m going to make mistakes. The first few months I was really hard on myself, but I’ve realized that mistakes are how you grow—I just try to learn from them and not make the same ones again.

What advice would you give a young entrepreneur? Follow your heart and your passion. As long as you’re passionate about what you do, you will become successful at it. Figure out what you love and then go with that, because when work doesn’t feel like work, you’ll enjoy what you do.

What does Lala think about all this? Oh, she loves it. She couldn’t be more proud. She thinks it’s so exciting that I took a great memory of her—something that I loved to do with her—and made it into a business. It’s a great way to keep those memories alive.

Learn more at www.lalasnuts.com