Northeast Joco

It’s a nutty business, but someone’s got to do it

Updated: 2013-12-12T18:57:36Z

By MARIA MARTIN

Special to The Star

Keep an eye out for the sign announcing the arrival of black walnuts, or you might zip right past a tiny shop nestled in the back of a warehouse along Merriam Lane.

Rodney Riffle, who owns Farmstead Nuts & Treats with his mother, Vicki Riffle, tells his customers that when they start smelling the heavenly aroma of Woodyard BBQ, right across the street, they’ve found the spot.

Inside the shop, shelves are stacked high with assortments of nuts, candy and even coffee, packaged in traditional party-ready trays, as well as in bags and pretty boxes.

“It’s not easy to find us, but when people do, we have a customer for life,” says Vicki, who bought the business with her son three years ago.

While they’re delighted when a customer visits, most business, both mother and son say, is in supplying goods to groups that are raising funds. Civic organizations, churches, schools, and other groups — many located in Johnson County — have come to rely on the business.

Corporate gifting is another reliable business source, and one the team hopes to build.

On a quiet, warm day in mid-November, three women are busy in the warehouse, packaging black walnuts. A distinct, slightly piney scent lingers in the air. The women are bundled in the room, kept cool to ensure the nuts stay fresh. At the far end of the line, one industrious worker fills 1-pound bags from a hopper half-filled with black walnuts.

“You love them or you hate them,” says Rodney. “There’s no middle ground.”

Stacks of boxes rest, ready to be sent to organizations for fund-raising efforts. On the website, the business owners offer a variety of tips to help groups raise money.

It starts with a quality product, says Vicki. And the product hasn’t changed much since she and her son bought the business from a friend who was ready to retire.

The black walnuts are from Stockton, Mo. The pecans are especially sweet because they’re from Arizona, where the heat creates a more flavorful nut. No matter what the homeland of the coveted nuts, they are roasted and salted only when they are ordered.

Freshness keeps customers coming back, says Vicki, offering a cinnamon-spiced pecan sample to a customer, who reaches for seconds.

Fans of the business know that it has a short season.

“We’re open from Labor Day to Christmas,” says Vicki, who lives in Prairie Village. “Around 90 percent of nuts are sold in the fourth quarter, and that makes sense when you consider how many are given as gifts. Plus we bake with them.”

Though mother and son have faced challenges learning how to run a business and deal with inventory and a handful of part-time staff, the rewards are abundant. Working with nonprofits makes coming to work during the hectic season worthwhile, mother and son agree.

“The people who come in here don’t have an ego,” Vicki says. “They’re in here doing good stuff and they’re a delight to work with. It’s a feel-good business.”

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