Episode 119

Episode 119: Turning Your Passion Into A Thriving Business with Nikki Crugnale

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What you’ll learn in this episode:

Over many, many episodes of the It’s Your Offer podcast we’ve spoken about the power of your passion, your Hell Yes! Energy, and how it’s not only an important piece of your business plan and journey, but how it’s a critical piece of your success and happiness.

In today’s episode I sit down with owner Nikki Crugnale of Gräem Nuts and Chocolate – a European inspired nut roaster, specializing in nuts, chocolate and dried fruit located in Concord, MA, and we talk about her journey from passion to dream business. Nikki started her career as an entrepreneur, and through the guidance from her father, a passion for quality goods and customer experiences, and a clear vision, she is now running the business of her dreams (and thankfully for us, one that we can all enjoy both for ourselves and as gifts for clients and special loved ones).

Take a listen to this heartfelt episode, and if you’re looking for a sweet treat, make sure you stop by her shop in Concord. It’s like stepping into a European oasis without traveling!

In this episode, you will learn to:

  • Start small and build: Why starting small and building on your expertise can help you grow in a targeted and sustained way.
  • Gain clarity on your ideal customer and market: How having a deep understanding of your customers, market, and suppliers allows you to create a premium product that differentiates itself easily in the marketplace.
  • Dream Big: Why linking a strong goal to your passion makes bringing your vision and dreams into reality not only easier, but so much more fun.

Mentioned in this episode:

Gräem Nuts and Chocolate Website

Gräem Nuts and Chocolate on Instagram

Canyon Ranch Spring 2024 Retreat

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About Nikki Crugnale

Since childhood, Nikki’s dream has always been to open a store. She would ask for a cash register and scanner each Christmas, and when Santa brought her a real cash register one year, her journey towards her own store began. After college, Nikki launched a cracker and cookie company specializing in Italian pizzelles and taralli. She learned many business skills during this venture, and this was a stepping stone to her bigger dream. She launched Gräem Nuts and Chocolate in October 2018, and her dream came true. You can typically find her in the store developing new nut mixes or designing new packaging. When she is not in the store, she loves traveling to Europe and finding new producers.
She currently resides in Boston with her husband, Patrick, whom were recently married this summer after a magical wedding in Italy.

Jessica Miller (00:02)

Hello, Nikki. Welcome to the It’s Your Offer podcast. We’re so excited to have you here today for this episode.

Nikki Crugnale (00:08)

Thank you, so happy to be here.

Jessica Miller (00:11)

So for everybody listening, I am so thrilled to have Nikki here to talk to us about her business, her journey, and talk about that evolution of what it’s like as a business owner to kind of go through the motion, to go through those journeys and those adventures, and then finally end up in your dream business, in the place that you’ve really wanted to be. As we all know, and Nikki, I’m sure you would agree with this.

If only it was a straight line. It’s never a straight line. It is that winding road. So I would love for you to share, you know, how you got started. I’m sure you, I know you didn’t start in the business that you are now. So how did you get started? What did you do? What compelled you to become an entrepreneur? I would love to hear all that.

Nikki (00:54)

Sure. So I went to college for marketing. Always knew I wanted to have my own business ever since I was a little kid. I would ask my parents every year at Christmas time for like a real cash register. And I’m like, I want a real cash register and I want a scanner and every year I would put that on the Christmas list. So that was always my dream since I was probably like seven or eight. So that was a goal I’ve had, you know,

Now I’m in my 30s, so that was a goal early on. So I went to college, went to school for marketing, knew I didn’t want to go into the marketing world, knew I always wanted that business of sorts. After college, I launched a baking company, so I specialized in Italian cookies, and then we started doing spreads and hummuses, and then we did crackers.

We specialize in Taralli, which are an Italian, Southern Italian savory cracker. So that business is called Sfolia. I loved it. I did farmers markets. I sold wholesale, but it wasn’t that goal of having a store with a cash register. So that was kind of my first steppingstone. Did that for about five years. And along the way, I you know, did a lot of research and kind of the business idea was evolving into what exactly I wanted for a retail store. So did a lot of traveling throughout Europe and came upon what the actual idea was, which is as it is now. We are a nut roaster at heart. So we roast all of our nuts on site and then we specialize in chocolates and dried fruits. So I have been in business for five years. We just celebrated our fifth-year anniversary in October.

So having me on this show makes me realize, wow, I achieved that goal that I’ve always wanted as a kid. So now, yay.

Jessica Miller (02:56)

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s amazing. Oh, yeah. So I wanted to just kind of step back because I think, you know, this is such an awesome story, by the way. I’m Italian, so let’s talk about Italian cookies here. Okay, you had me at Italian cookies. You know, I think as entrepreneurs, we go through that similar journey. You know, there’s this little seed that’s planted. It comes from this deep place of passion. We’re just drawn to it.

Nikki (03:11)

Hehehehe Yup

Jessica Miller (03:25)

I don’t know about you and I’m curious if your family had an entrepreneurial background, but my family did not. And I really thought that entrepreneurs were so amazing, but they were like these special snowflakes, and I was not one of them. I went to school in healthcare, I was a pharmacist, I thought I was going to come out and do pharmacy things and got my MBA. And I didn’t think that there was a world outside of the four worlds of corporate that I actually belonged in. But there’s that little piece of you that’s like calling. It’s like your heart is calling. And I think we all sort of dream like, Oh, I could take this thing, whatever it is, and you know, just start a business. So for you, you actually did that. And I would love to know, you know, what was that process of like, Okay, I love these cookies, like, here’s a thing. And now I’m going to go and, you know, really make a business out of it, create this thing that sells this product. And how did you go through the motions of figuring that out?

Nikki (04:22)

So, you know, growing up in an Italian family, food was everywhere. And so starting off with the cracker and cookie company, it was just kind of taking a hobby and not there wasn’t a huge opportunity for it, but I was like, hey, we always have these cookies and crackers at family events. Let me try to make a business out of it.

I always remember my aunt being like, “I love your, you know, your Taralli. Can you share the recipe?” And I’m like, definitely not. I’m like, this is a business now. And she definitely reminds me to this day, you know, it was just a small business, but I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. You know, I had my dad, he was a very successful entrepreneur. So, sorry.

Jessica Miller (04:47)

Yeah!

Nikki (05:09)

I get a little teary. Um, um, so he’s been like a great guide throughout the years. Um, sorry, I just get emotional. I’m so proud of what he’s done and what and how he’s, he’s just such an inspiration for me. So, um, so yeah, growing up in a food in an entrepreneurial family has definitely been that, you know, that guide behind me as well.

Jessica Miller (05:09)

Oh, not at all.

Jessica Miller (05:22)

It’s okay. Absolutely.

Jessica Miller (05:39)

Yeah, oh my gosh, and it speaks so much to the idea that we cannot do it alone, right? It’s not something to walk by yourself. And the people that you see and you emulate and you hear their stories and they’re there to support you is such a huge part of that journey.

Nikki (05:40)

hehe

Nikki (05:57)

Yeah, it’s so true.

Jessica Miller (06:00)

So you had this idea, you started with these cookies, and then did you lean on him for guidance and inspiration, or did you go onto the web and sort of research it, or did you enroll in, you had some marketing background, so that obviously helped. But what was that sort of first step that you took to really make it happen and figure out, how do I get this thing out there and actually have people buy it?

Nikki (06:22)

So I went to school at Emerson for marketing and I did an entrepreneurial program there as well. So for that business, you know, it’s a year-long program, became a, it was a minor. So the program was to develop a business, and my business was for a local grocery store. So I didn’t obviously execute that plan right away. I went the cookie route because it was a little bit more convenient at the time to get up and going.

But sure, you know, but using all those marketing skills, going through the business plan was something I applied to my little small cookie company at the time. So that was kind of my guidance. But also again, using my father’s background and always being around the business and just business world myself, you know, through my youth, you know, definitely guided me to just taking that kind of a little bit of a jump. Like, you know, I kind of had nothing to lose. Wasn’t a big investment.

Jessica Miller (07:27)

Yeah.

Nikki (07:29)

You just like a little Pizzelli iron, a mixer. It was just like an easy launch. Like, hey, let’s just give it a try.

Jessica Miller (07:36)

Yeah, I love that too because one of the things when we talk a lot about offers and what I love about This initial business is it was very tight and even for your store now, right? It’s not like Everything under the sun. It’s very focused in nuts and chocolate So there’s a niche there and that’s true of the pit cells too, by the way the best Pits cells I am totally biased, but they’re so good And my dad makes them still and it’s a whole thing. Okay, but anyway, we won’t go off on a tangent on that.

But it was, you know, you kind of had this focus, like this is what I do well, this is what I know, I’m leveraging my expertise of eating these cookies and knowing that people love them. And I’m gonna start here on this one thing and build on it, and then find the people and the different, you know, you know, channels to actually distribute that, which makes it so much easier because you’re not trying to do everything or be everything to everybody.

Nikki (08:14)

Mm-hmm.

Nikki (08:35)

It’s so true.

Jessica Miller (08:36)

Yeah. So, okay. So then you did your cookie business and it started to get off the ground and you were doing that. And then what happened?

Nikki (08:40)

Mm-hmm.

Nikki (08:44)

And then at the time I was working at a gourmet cheese shop in Boston and that was kind of, I always call it my kind of like MBA program, just because it was such a hands-on experience, you know, I was a supervisor there, I did a lot of managerial experience, you know, helping customers. So I pretty much learned the whole ropes of running a business, something that they don’t teach you in school. I was getting marketing education at school, but actually getting the hands on, running a business experience, a grocery specialty type of store was what I got there. So I was working at the cheese shop simultaneously with running my cookie company. And then it was just kind of like, you know what? I love the cookies, but also don’t like it at the same time.

Jessica Miller (09:41)

Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm.

Nikki (09:41)

It wasn’t my passion. It was just kind of like that first steppingstone. So I started doing a little bit of basic research of the type of store I wanted. So it was kind of that starting to build that foundation of the core of what my business is today. So, and like I said before, it was a lot of traveling to Europe and being inspired by those open-air markets and beautiful chocolate shops. And I was like, huh. I love this. Like this is what I want to do. So, you know, it wasn’t easy. It’s not like you can just open a shop the next day, make it look beautiful. It took a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of traveling. But so I launched Graem in October of 2018.

Jessica Miller (10:11)

Yeah. Oh my gosh, so the next time you need to go on research, can I just come with you? That’s all. I just want to travel. I’m happy to carry your bag and try all the different things, give you feedback. Oh my gosh, my heart is like just soaring as you’re talking about this because I so know what you mean about loving to be in those spaces. And they’re, especially Italians, again, totally biased. But you know, it’s like things are so beautiful for the sake of just being beautiful. And the shops are beautiful.

Nikki (10:34)

Yeah, of course, yes.

Nikki (10:55)

Mm-hmm.

Nikki (11:00)

Exactly.

Jessica Miller (11:02)

The food is amazing, of course. So I could completely understand going there, getting inspired. Again, it’s like tapping into that feeling of like, hell yes, this is what I want. I feel it. And now how do I marry that with sort of the brass tacks of business, like you said, the business plan and all the other pieces that actually bring that dream to life? So you went over and you were being inspired and you started to dig in a little bit. And then.

Were you eyeing downtown Concord? So your shop is in downtown Concord, Mass now. Were you eyeing Concord or did the shop just sort of come? I remember that store. I used to live in Concord 100 years ago and I live close still, but oh my gosh. So tell me about how you found that spot because it’s a great spot.

Nikki (11:47)

Yeah, so we were keeping our options open, definitely weren’t, you know, tied to Concord. However, it was one of the first places we saw my dad kind of scouted out. He’s like, this would be beautiful. Checked out a couple of places, but you know what? They, nothing could compare to this. The corner location, brick walls, high ceiling. It’s, and it has that without doing any work to it. It had that’s just that charm to it in a blank space. So definitely settled on that once we explored our options. And for me, it was kind of capturing and taking those little aspects of those European shops, those beautiful shops, and how could we create that in Concord? So I definitely had an idea of what I wanted it to look like and we worked with an architect and they definitely were able to execute.

Jessica Miller (12:17)

Totally.

Nikki (12:47)

my vision for the space. And we tried to keep a lot of the elements from the prior stores, especially there was a pharmacy before us. And on the glass, they had in the stained glass written pharmacy. And that’s something that’s just such a European aspect. So we kept that to some extent and changed our window lettering to nuts and chocolates and fruit. So kind of keeping that European vibe.

Jessica Miller (13:14)

I love it. And I will tell you my heart like definitely when I saw that it was an old pharmacy, there was like another part of me that loved it so much more because that’s where I come from. And those spaces do they have something very old and deep and it’s like a healing sort of a place and it just feels awesome. So I yeah, I think that spot is the best spot ever. So I’m so happy for you that you that I feel like it’s serendipity, right? It just kind of happens. It’s meant to be in on some level.

Nikki (13:38)

I think that’s fine.

Jessica Miller (13:43)

and then you kind of bring your vision to life, which just makes it yours. And I think when I walk in there, we feel all of that part of you, all of that beauty and attention to quality and detail, and just that coziness of Europe, which is just so good, I love it. Okay, so tell me now.

Nikki (14:02)

Mm-hmm

Jessica Miller (14:03)

about how you landed on nuts and chocolate. Tell people a little bit about your shop because there’s many people that may not have been in there. By the way, everyone listening, you need to run, not walk to get to the shop, okay? It’s amazing. You will thank me for the gifts that you will get for people and for all the yummy things you’re going to buy for yourself you didn’t plan on buying. But tell us a little bit about the shop and how it became nuts and chocolate and that journey.

Nikki (14:27)

Sure, so we are a nut roaster at heart. So we roast all of our nuts on site. I work with small producers throughout the world to source our nuts. So specifically our almonds are our most specialty item in store. We import them directly from a farm in Greece.

Again, going along with that hell yeah theme of this show is that a prior boss I had at the cheese shop I worked at, he just traveled throughout the world to find these unique producers to source for his shop. And I said, that’s what I want to as part of my lifestyle. It’s a work life balance. So when I found this almond grower in Greece, I was like, that’s it. I’m doing that dream. Another.

I’m achieving that little dream that I had as well. So back in 2019, we went to go visit the grower, looked at the farms. He took us to this beautiful restaurant on the seaside. So it was just building all these fun memories, with our almond grower. So that aside, I’m very particular where I source from. I don’t like to look through catalogs and just, pick something that every other shop, every other small.

Jessica Miller (15:27)

Ugh.

Jessica Miller (15:33)

So good.

Nikki (15:44)

Gourmet Grocer is selling. I’m very particular. We get our pecans from a small farm in Georgia. Our peanuts come from a small farm in Virginia. So I’m always sourcing right from the source, knowing the farmers, calling them, emailing them. So I’m not just working with a huge distributor that gets nuts from you don’t know where. So we are a nut roaster at heart.

Jessica Miller (16:10)

Right.

Nikki (16:13)

In addition to nuts, we do chocolate, because what’s better than nuts and chocolate? Nothing. And they’re good together. So we make a good portion of our own chocolate in-house. A fun little note here is that my dad is involved in our business now, and he makes all of our chocolates. So he loves it. Neither of us knew really much about chocolate before launching the business.

Jessica Miller (16:17)

Agreed.

Nikki (16:40)

So it’s one of those things you don’t need to know everything about your business before you launch, right? It’s something for us, we evolved. And then we’re like, hey, might as well make some in-house, right? So we make a good portion of our chocolates in-house, specifically our barks. We make all of those in-house. And then the items that we don’t make, for instance, are truffles, a little bit more complex items we outsource. And we work with four different producers in Europe. So one in Italy, Belgium, France, and Greece as well. And again, with that, I was in Italy in April and I went to go visit my producer in Lucca, Italy, who makes our chocolates. So it’s again, being on that journey and building these relationships with my producers throughout the world. So in addition to the nuts and chocolates, we also do dried fruits too. So we have 30 types of dried fruits.

Again, sourced mostly from the source, and specifically we specialize in more organic fruits too, so not a lot of preservatives or extra sugars added.

Jessica Miller (17:47)

Oh, I love it. And there’s so much it seems that there’s such a deep vein of relationships, relationships with your producers, where you’re sourcing, your dad is now part of it. There’s that relationship, your relationship with your customers. I mean, from the times that I walked in the door, people say hello the second you walk in. I’ve seen you there say hello. I mean, it’s just such a, it seems like there’s a very deep feeling of connection with people. Would you agree?

Nikki (18:15)

Yes, and that’s the one. I’m happy you said that because it’s the one thing I always stress to my employees. You have to make people feel comfortable when they walk in the store. Just a general hello, how are you? I always get turned off when I walk into store.

No one says anything to you. And it’s just, you just don’t feel welcome. And I don’t ever want a customer to feel like that because they’re coming into my home. So I always want people to feel welcome. But it is about building those relationships. And for me too, building relationships with customers. I met you by just chatting with you coming in. So, and we have a lot of great customers that over the years have definitely built some relationships with. So definitely a huge part of the business.

Jessica Miller (18:28)

Yes.  Mm-hmm.

Jessica Miller (18:56)

I love it. I love it. Where do you see, two things actually, where do you see most of your customers coming from? Like where, how are they finding you? And then also, why do you think they’re picking your store? Like what is, what’s drawing them in? Like what do they love about it?

Nikki (19:14)

First off, it’s there. A lot of them are coming in for gifts because we are a very heavy gift store. They’re coming in for the environment. You know, some place that they can come in and be like, hey. I know the person behind the counter. Like, you know, even my employees are building relationships with our customers. So it’s that friendly face when they walk in. It’s finding, you know, unique gifts that they can’t find anywhere else. It’s that we’re local. People love to support small local businesses. A lot of times people think we’re a chain. We are very brand centric. So many people come in and be like, oh, where’s this chain located? Are you a European company? So again, on that note, that’s where it’s like, okay, people get it. I’ve definitely achieved my vision and my goal of having that European inspired store. So. Yeah.

Jessica Miller (20:11)

I love it. And do you feel like they’re finding you online or are they just walking by? Do you think it’s a lot of foot traffic or?

Nikki (20:18)

Yeah, so we get a lot of tourists in Concord. So a lot of people walking by, a lot of just kind of one-offs too, just people in the area for the day. People are also finding us online. I get a lot of corporate inquiries from people throughout the country who were trying to find some nice chocolate or nut gifts, find us. It’s word of mouth too. Or people receiving a gift and coming in as well to purchase their own gift.

Jessica Miller (20:47)

Yeah, after you, please, after you eat any of that stuff, you’re like, I’m totally going back. I could be in like New York and I’d be driving here. What is your favorite thing that you sell? Like what is your favorite food that you have in your store? I’d love to know.

Nikki (21:01)

I’m going to go back to the almonds. They’re my number one. I tried this almond. So with the Greek almond, I’ll just explain it real quick. It’s a lot bigger in size. Traditionally, the ones in the States are from California, so they’re really dense, really small. The Greek ones we get are very big and very light in texture. So this was something it took me, it was a process to try to figure out how do I get this beautiful almond that I love from Greece to Concord, MA? How do I get it passed?

Jessica Miller (21:03)

Yeah. Yeah, I bet.

Nikki (21:31)

So that was a lot of research, you know, figuring out FDA and importing and there was a lot that went into it, but once I’ve, you know, set up all the groundwork now, it’s just an easy, in easy order.

Jessica Miller (21:44)

Oh my gosh, and they are, I am a huge nut fan. I like chocolate, but I really do only like chocolate the most with nuts. I’m not a huge chocolate eater, but those nuts. And I remember the first thing that I had from your store was the pecans. And I remember thinking, yeah, this is not your average pecan. They were a little bit smaller and they’re just light and fleshy. It had a whole different texture to it. I think many times we’re used to like, I don’t know, getting the…

Nikki (21:58)

Hmm No. Exactly. No.

Jessica Miller (22:12)

bag at the grocery store, like not the same thing at all. Not even close, no. So then you player that with chocolate and like, oh my goodness, it’s like unbelievable. Yeah, so that’s really interesting, I love that. So now, you know, here you are, what is next? What are you looking forward to maybe in Q4 or even just sort of that next phase of vision that you see for your show?

Nikki (22:39)

So right now it’s just kind of getting through the next few months ahead of us. But what I’m most looking forward to for the next few months is just, it’s the adrenaline in the store. You know, I get very little sleep, very stressed. There’s a lot going on. But it’s just all my employees are so happy and the customers are in a good mood. And it’s just a very fun time to be in the shop. It’s very magical is how I like to say it. So very excited for that.

Jessica Miller (23:09)

Yeah, it’s awesome. Yeah, and I think when people come in there with you, they know they’re going to get something that someone is going to love. If they are buying a gift, it’s a sure thing. If they’re buying it for themselves, they’re like, I can’t wait to just get into my car and eat this thing right now. So there’s such a good feeling about that. Because when it comes to gifting, I’m sure you know this.

Nikki (23:25)

Mm-hmm

Jessica Miller (23:36)

A big part of that is getting something that somebody will love. You love it, but you want other people to love it, the person that you’re gifting it to. And so the more certainty that you have around the thing that you’re going to give, the more likely you’re going to buy it. It’s a Hell Yes! for you. I think that’s the best part of gifting. When it’s win-win, when you’re so excited to give this thing to somebody because you love it and you know they will. I think your store really encompasses that high quality, sure thing.

Nikki (23:55)

Mm hmm. Right.

Jessica Miller (24:05)

They have a relationship with you. You’re going to give them advice on what maybe they need. Because I would assume people don’t come in all the time knowing exactly what they want, right? They would probably lean on you, I would think.

Nikki (24:18)

Yes, a lot of recommendations. You know, they’re looking for what do I buy? They don’t like dried fruit or they have, they can’t have sugar, you know, so what are awesome options? So definitely happy to, you know, we always help and to guide them through their decision.

Jessica Miller (24:33)

Yeah, and you mentioned you have corporate clients as well as individual clients. Do you when you do a gifting program with people, is there a certain, you know, size order that you’re looking for or is it really very bespoke?

Nikki (24:47)

Yeah, we cater to anything. So, you know, something from a small order to a large order that we have to ship across the country. We’ve definitely done it all. Never like to say no. Always like to, you know, make things work.

Jessica Miller (25:03)

I love it. So I asked this question of all entrepreneurs when they come on the show, and I would love to know standing where you are, having had your experience, being successful, five years in business, like, oh my goodness, downtown Concord location, beautiful shop, working with your dad. I mean, really, Nikki, I can’t say enough as someone who’s spoke with a lot of businesses, this is awesome. You get to connect with all these great people overseas. I mean…

Awesome. So being where you are now in this place, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs, listening to the show, thinking about their offer, wanting to dial up that hell yes, tagging along, going to Europe, all the things, what would you tell people to make sure that they do? One thing.

Nikki (25:50)

Just have a strong goal supported by your passion to make that a vision and a reality. So definitely have something at the end of the road. You’re going to get to eventually. It might take a little time. You might get a little distracted. But just having that end point, end goal will definitely make you achieve it.

Jessica Miller (26:15)

Yeah, so like dream big, really visualize it and frankly, just go for it. Like just go after your dreams. I love it. So where can people find you on the interwebs and all the things? Tell us if they wanna connect with you, follow you, buy chocolates and nuts, I don’t know, all the things.

Nikki (26:20)

Exactly.

Nikki (26:32)

Yeah, of course. Our location is 49 Main Street, right in downtown Concord. We have a website which is Graemroasters.com or you can find us on Instagram and Facebook at Graemroasters.

Jessica Miller (26:46)

Nikki, this was so awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show. To everybody listening, like I said, do not walk, run. Check out Gram, check out Nikki, follow her online. The holidays are coming up. I mean, this is a time to gift yourself and other people with something awesome. So thank you all for listening, and until next week, have a great week, everyone.

Nikki (27:06)

Thank you.