Chestnuts roasting on an open George Foreman grill: Lessons from a small business’ pivot

Chestnuts at Sainsbury’s in London
Chestnuts at Sainsbury’s in London
Image: Getty Images / Dan Kitwood
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In streets and festivals throughout Europe and China, chestnuts are sold and served hot from the roaster or fire, in paper bags.

This year, I brought them to middle America.

Encouraged by some holiday events in the Detroit, Michigan area, I decided to endeavor from selling my usual summertime Italian ice to roasted chestnuts and hot tea this holiday season. It seemed like a smart move: Extend the season for my small social enterprise called Mity Nice LLC by setting up a booth in Christmas markets.

We started our experiments in nut-roasting with the purchase of a bright red George Foreman grill but securing the chestnuts was another matter. One local farmer told me that growers had lost 80 to 90% of their crops because of a late frost but I finally able to order the chestnuts from Michigan growers’ cooperative. My “aim high” and “make no small plans” approach was reigned in by my partner, who pointed out that chestnuts had a limited shelf life—few people would want them after Christmas—and they could not be parked in the freezer for a long winter’s nap, like our Italian ice.

Here are the three big lessons this small business learned while roasting chestnuts on a Foreman grill:

The right staffer makes all the difference.

My summer staff was not available or interested in venturing forth from Ann Arbor, a prosperous college town, into the drafty hut in downtown Detroit. So I hired a local guy, who turned out to have an overnight job unloading trucks at Target. Even if he hadn’t been sleep deprived, he just didn’t convey Mity Nice-ness. He smoked on breaks and hardly smiled. So I did what any major league baseball manager would do: I traded him away.

The next hire was a better fit for my company. Still in his teens, he was energetic, happy and a quick study on organic ingredients and the need to engage customers. He wore his red apron proudly, he sold smoothly, and worked hard. He also quickly picked up the nuances of selling the gluten-free goodies provided by my friends and business partners, Julie and Ran, of Tasty Bakery.

Ideas like chestnuts can dry up.  

After a few hours on the grill, chestnuts started to darken and the inner nut looked leathery, even though I turned them regularly and lowered the heat. They were drying up, despite a cup of water that we sprinkled on them occasionally. They were not so tasty as before.

The same thing happens to business ideas, left too long without new ingredients or a different venue. My little company could not rely on an all-natural frozen fruity dessert in the winter months, yet I knew people who could use extra hours to earn some cash, even if they had to stand out in the cold to earn them. So I crashed into chestnuts and expanded our cookie line. Since coffee and hot chocolate could be found all over at winter festivals, we offered Candy Cane and two other flavors of tea. The new items allowed us to sell tea and cookies.

It was quite a leap for a business built around summer to completely change its product offering, but our customers seemed to warm to the change.

Make memories—or relive them.

With horses and carriages on the street nearby and purple, blue and white lights twinkling all around, we knew we’d be able to capitalize on people’s holiday spirit. After all, we were giving many people their first taste of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Sometimes people burst into the aptly subtitled Christmas carol as they bought them.

Families with children crowded around, checking out the cookies and accepting the free mini-candy canes I handed out. One woman looked wistful as she reminisced of buying bags of chestnuts in Europe, then wandering down the streets, stomping on the shells to make a pleasing popping noise as she went. Another told how her grandmother had roasted chestnuts.

To succeed today, a small business must create some awesome products or services and an emotional connection. I decided from the start that at Mity Nice our job was to create joy—even if it lasts only for the three minutes it takes to crack into an order of chestnuts.

Follow Vickie Elmer on Twitter at @WorkingKind or @MityNiceIce .