As Tasya Kelen looked around the commercial kitchen space, her excitement grew. The gleaming surfaces and appliances, the layout and space available for prep and cooking, the bright and welcoming vibe—it was a definite upgrade from where she’d been previously making her roasted nut mixes. Then the woman giving the tour of Golden Valley, Minnesota-based Jewish Housing and Programming (J-HAP) explained they were looking for someone to rent the kitchen who would also be willing to employ the building’s tenants, who are adults with special needs. In that moment, everything changed for Tasya. “All of this light flooded my brain, and I realized we could serve a greater purpose if we offered inclusive employment as a cornerstone of what Isadore Nut Co. is all about.”
Tasya had long been passionate about the power of good food. Her grandfather, Isadore, believed food was medicine. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1950s and wasn’t satisfied with the prognosis presented by Western doctors. As he searched for alternative forms of treatment, a healthy diet became a big part of his wellness regime. He began pushing for organic options at supermarkets at a time when only farmers knew what he was talking about. And he passed those values on to his family, including Tasya. A few years ago, when she couldn’t find the kind of healthy snacks she was looking for, she began creating homemade organic nut mixes in a variety of her own specialty flavors. She gave them as gifts to friends and family.
She’d gotten so much great feedback about the taste and quality of the nuts, Tasya knew her products had potential. But it was more of a hobby—something she’d do when she wasn’t working on becoming a certified yoga instructor. Then, in 2013, she got an opportunity to sell her product at a popup holiday boutique in Edina. She hadn’t yet learned how to effectively price her product and practically gave it away that day, but she ended up meeting some key people—including a local food reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. After an article about her company ran in that newspaper, people lined up outside the door at the next popup event where Tasya was selling her product. When she sold out within 90 minutes, Tasya knew her hobby was becoming something more.
For the next five years, Tasya taught yoga and roasted and sold nuts on the side. She learned a lot, including how much the holiday season can make or break a retailer. While she often had so much business during the holidays that she couldn’t keep up, the rest of the year was much slower. In 2018, Tasya considered closing her business. The niche she’d previously served—sourcing locally and using organic ingredients—wasn’t as unique anymore. As American consumers had become more health conscious overall, other snack food companies had entered the space and had the resources to scale in a way Tasya never could. She wasn’t sure there was any point in continuing a business that had stopped growing and wasn’t giving her a paycheck.
That meeting at J-HAP happened at just the right time. It reignited Tasya’s passion for her business and fulfilled a dream she’d had since leaving a career in journalism many years earlier—making a bigger difference in the world. Today, the once-fledgling Isadore Nut Co. is growing again, proving that in a crowded market, consumers want to support a company that is aligned with their values and that stands out for doing good. And Tasya’s popular Zesty Lemon Rosemary nut mix is a finalist for a national Good Food Award.
Tasya is in the process of rebranding the company to more proudly share the stories of her employees. She’s also working to revamp her packaging to make it easier for her employees to work with, because people with dexterity issues have a hard time putting labels on the current packaging. In a world where the vast majority of people with disabilities are unemployed, Tasya has become a passionate advocate for this group. She believes none of the momentum her business is experiencing would be happening if she hadn’t adopted a new mission of being an inclusive employer. “Before, we weren’t filling any voids and we were just trying to stay in the game,” she said. “Now, we’re trying to rewrite the rules of the game. I want to motivate as many companies as possible to want to do what we’re doing.”
To learn more about Tasya’s business, visit IsadoreNutCo.com.
Photo: Kylee Leonetti for My Founder Story
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