Madison's number of small-batch food producers is growing. This year, add Lala's Nuts to that list. The nut-confection business, started by food lover Nicole Drives, fits her slogan -- "Get a little nutty."
Drives, 24, graduated from UW-Madison with a major in dietetics, which combines "biochemical, physiological, social and managerial concepts into the science of nutrition to achieve a healthy lifestyle," according to the department's website. Instead of working with food in a hospital setting, Drives wanted to strike out on her own.
The inspiration for Lala's Nuts came from Drives' family. Her grandmother, known as Lala, had been concocting a sweet glazed nut recipe for decades. "Lala's Nuts is a great way to honor my grandmother and remember the times we spent in the kitchen together," says Drives.
Drives' father is also a small business owner and motivated her to build her own business. "Now that I've launched Lala's Nuts I have even more respect for him," says Drives. "I know how much work and passion goes into being a small business owner."
Drives started selling her confections in September 2012, while cooking her recipes in a shared kitchen space in Watertown, Wis. Although it was an hour's drive to the kitchen, it helped Drives turn her nutty idea into a real business. "Without that space, the kitchen, I would never be where I am today.… The owner [of that kitchen] helped with the regulations, the licensing, the paperwork" to get Lala's Nuts started on the market.
In March, Drives began re-creating Lala's recipe on a commercial scale in the Madison Enterprise Center, a small business and start-up incubator on the near east side. She credits her training in the dietetics program with helping her navigate issues of food safety, regulations and labeling, all inseparable from the process of becoming a food entrepreneur.
Lala's Nuts currently features two flavors, Sugar n' Spice and Bodacious Bourbon, both available in either walnuts or pecans. Sugar n' Spice re-creates Lala's original family recipe; Bodacious Bourbon was inspired by Lala's spirit of choice. Drives tries to source her nuts from small family-owned farms; she's looking to offer almonds in her selection soon. And she's hoping to introduce two new flavors by the end of the year -- one by fall that will be more salty than sweet.
Drives is also currently working with Fromagination to create an exclusive private-label recipe that should be available later this summer. She'll also be collaborating with Yahara Bay on her Bodacious Bourbon nuts.
In addition to using Lala's treats for straight snacking, Drives suggests that they can be added to salads, oatmeal and ice cream. They're also a flavorful addition to a Wisconsin cheese plate. Lala's Nuts are currently available through lalasnuts.com ($8 for 5 ounces) and sold at Metcalfe's Markets, Fromagination, Fresh Madison Market, Orange Tree Imports, Steve's and some gift shops.
Which means that Drives' grandmother, a Madison native and current resident, can walk into local stores and see her original recipe as a product with her name enshrined on the label.