Nutty granola, chocolate, and Bacon Thursdays
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
When Stephanie Jaquelyn Rieke (center) took her mom’s advice to sell her yummy granola, she founded Nutty Steph’s 10 years ago. Partners in the Middlesex business are Cecilia Leibovitz (left), media and design, and Josie Green, head chocolatier. Steph now goes by Jaquelyn.
Jaquelyn Rieke calls herself an example of a Vermontrepreneur, a word recently discussed in a commentary by Lisa Gosselin, commissioner of the Department of Economic Development.
Heidi Lyon grew up with Rieke in Barrington, Ill., and was in Vermont for a recent visit. “She would start babysitting clubs, make those little bracelets everybody made in the ’80s and sell them at fairs — this tiny entrepreneurial brain in this tiny body,” says Lyon, “and nobody could figure out if she was a mad genius or just a really amazing person.”
The answer might be both. Rieke is the founder 10 years ago of Nutty Steph’s, a granola and chocolate company she now operates in Middlesex with two partners. On the payroll are nine people.
She goes by her middle name, Jaquelyn, a decision she made four years after she started Nutty Steph’s. “I was born Stephanie Jaquelyn Rieke and had been Steph all my life,” she says. “Then I realized that the business had much more to do with other people than me, so I became a person again by taking my middle name, and Nutty Steph was an entity.”
Rieke’s entrepreneurial bent grew out of her childhood. “Dad was a businessman,” she says, “so I was started by age 8 building community through the sale of goods and services.” Nutty Steph’s could have been any product or service, she says. “This was never my dream. I don’t really like baking, but I had a wonderful granola recipe from an educational sailing trip, and I needed a job.”
Rieke studied math at Carlton College in Minnesota, where she started a business baking bread and selling it to students every Wednesday. When it was hot from the oven, she loaded it into pillow cases and ran it around the dorm to sell along with honey in little Dixie cups.
Out of college, she headed to Baltimore with a guy — a Vermonter she had met at school. Their goal was to live in a city and Baltimore was an affordable option. “Before I started a business, I wanted to work for another great business and learn from a mentor-type person,” she says. “Unfortunately, it was 2001 and there were no other jobs to be had, so I ended up as a finance assistant for a nonprofit.”
Deciding the setting was too institutional, she pursued a job teaching math and easily found one.
When her partner decided he wanted to be near his family and suggested they move to Vermont. Rieke was reluctant. “I wanted to go to New York — have a big job. ‘I’m ambitious,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I’ll go to Vermont when I retire.’”
But she moved to Vermont with him and started Nutty Steph’s after only two months. “I grew to love Vermont and understood for the first time that big Wall Street ambition is a different thing than true entrepreneurship.” Her partner did not like living here so much, though, and eventually left.
Rieke’s mother suggested that the granola was so good she should whip some up and sell it. She connected with Patrick Giantonio, a baker she calls a “very close brother in business.” Giantonio makes the granola in Woodbury — “exactly to our recipe,” says Rieke. It’s the only thing his bakery produces.
For the first four years, granola was the sole product. The chocolate was a total accident, she says. A persistent friend persuaded her to make chocolate-covered granola.
“I’ve worked with her a long time,” says Allan Sirotkin, the founder of Green River Chocolates. “We were both on the board of the Vermont Specialty Food Association. I like to work with other producers, and came up with doing the Magic Chunks.
“We were doing those for a year and a half and I came down with stage 4 colon cancer. I was trying to keep going, but the holiday season was approaching. She volunteered to take my equipment and make the squares while I was finishing my recovery.”
Rieke was operating out of a warehouse in Montpelier. “When we moved his chocolate equipment in, we were doing dishes in the bathroom at night. It was not a production facility.”
The health department was extremely accommodating, Rieke says. “We called them right away; they came in and understood that this was a temporary situation. The state has been super instrumental in helping us operate our business.”
Rieke was having so much fun making chocolate that when Sirotkin got better, he decided to become semi-retired. “I consult with her on the chocolate and help out now and then,” he says. “And I still do the importing part for her.”
Josie Green, head chocolatier and one of Rieke’s two partners, met her at the Langdon Street Cafe in Montpelier. A Virginia native, Green had been studying neuroscience at Oberlin College in Ohio when she decided she really wanted to study herbs. “Since I was paying for it myself, I left and came to Vermont — pretty much followed a boy here — in 2006.”
Although she had never grown anything before, she lived in a tepee and planted her first garden. She worked at the Bee’s Knees in Morrisville for a year. “Then it got cold in the teepee,” she says with a grin, “so I left.”
She went west but returned and landed in Montpelier in late 2007, working several jobs to make ends meet. The winter of 2008, she was hired by Rieke.
“I was just shopkeeping for the winter,” says Green, “but it really wasn’t my bag. I liked food and eventually started making chocolate. When I quit my job at the herb farm, it was almost full-time.”
The partnership happened around the same time, says Rieke. “I started asking what we could do for her in ways alternative to giving her a bigger paycheck. She said, ‘The only thing I’d really like to do is have land.’ She had moved many times and was so frustrated by this, she was almost ready to leave Vermont.”
They found land two years ago in Marshfield and partnered up to buy it. “I’m in this major commitment to this land — not because I’m living there, but because I wanted to procure Josie’s well-being,” Rieke says.
She recently learned about Rudolf Steiner’s needs-based communities, “and it reminded me of how I’d operated.” She mentions Sirotkin as another example.
The other partner, Cecilia Leibovitz, handles media and design. She grew up in New York City and moved to Brattleboro in 1998 with her then husband and their two young children. “They were the inspiration for the move,” she says.
Leibovitz had a mail-order business in New York offering cloth diapers and other natural products for babies and children. When she moved, she expanded it to include a natural toy website.
“After about a year, I realized I didn’t want to be in the marriage I was in,” she says. “I wound up selling the website, got my driver’s license at age 27, got divorced, and went back to school at Mount Holyoke College for my degree in English and a minor in film.”
She then put her focus on another toy business, which was doing well. Then in 2007, it was discovered that Mattel had made millions of dollars worth of toys with lead in them, she says. After the dust settled, heavy testing requirements were laid on small crafters like Leibovitz, although Mattel was exempted.
She pulled together a group of people doing hand-made toy lines and became an online activist, eventually catching the attention of Washington and the media. But her trips to Washington caused her business to languish and she lost many of her artists.
In New York making hats she still sells on Etsy, but yearning to return to Vermont, she phoned Rieke, whom she’d met years before. Rieke was looking for a salesperson. “I came in March 2012. I hated the sales, but I did pretty well with it,” says Leibovitz. “After six months or so, Jaquelyn mentioned this idea of bringing on another partner.”
“She hadn’t found other work,” says Rieke. “She always has treated the business like an owner. I hadn’t had collaboration like that before.”
The business grows between 15 and 20 percent a year. The product line now includes Vermont Granola, the Magic Chunks, and 30 chocolate bars. Rieke mounts events such as baking demos and weekly teacher and senior appreciation days, which bring people into the shop in Middlesex.
Wanting to sell hot chocolate, she instituted Bacon Thursdays, when the shop turns into a bar at 6 p.m. serving up beer, wine, hot chocolate, bacon cooked to order, and good conversation and music.
“It’s become quite an institution,” says Randy George, owner with his wife, Eliza Cain, of Red Hen Bakery, Nutty Steph’s next door neighbor. “It’s fun to go there. We both benefit: We bring in traffic in the morning, and she brings in traffic later on.”
Rieke is taking six months away from the business to give herself permission to write — something she’s always wanted to do. She’s been gathering all the information the staff will need to run things on their own.
“If it takes four months of me being distracted every two hours, I’ll be fine. I’ll be right here in the house. If the business turns out not to need me, that would be really healthy for the business.”
She, Green, and Leibovitz are in a year-long process learning about worker-owned cooperatives and ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans) with a goal of moving in that direction by next January.
“It used to bother me that people so admire the business owner in this country they would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve done it!’ and it was just that I needed a job. But my passion is writing, and it’s taken me 33 years to discover that it’s OK to have a creative passion.” •