Almond queen

Chico and beyond go nuts for Maisie Jane’s

Maisie Jane Hurtado

Maisie Jane Hurtado

Photo By Ken Smith

Today, Maisie Jane Hurtado, founder of Maisie Jane’s California Sunshine Products, oversees the production of hundreds of tons of almonds to destinations throughout the United States and Canada. She also operates a postcard-perfect retail store and a burgeoning online business.

It all began with a flock of sheep.

In 1993, the then-high-school student was assigned to design a business for a Future Farmers of America project. As a fourth-generation local almond farmer, she remembered family conversations lamenting the lack of American interest in almonds (more than 80 percent was exported then), and began to think of ways to better market the nut.

“That was before computers and Google and everything,” she recalled, “and I can remember lying on my bedroom floor with a telephone and a pad of paper, calling Blue Diamond to ask all kinds of questions about package sizes and how they made their products.”

She discovered Blue Diamond almonds were fried in oil, which seemed odd to the teenager who’d grown up with the smell of homegrown baked almonds wafting from her mother’s kitchen. She also saw an unfilled niche in snack-sized servings of the nut.

“I decided right then, that was going to be the way I did things; to bake them,” she said. “It’s always been a strong difference between us and our competition.”

As for capital, she explained: “I was raising a flock of sheep, so I sold the sheep to buy my first ton,” she said. “From then I was committed. … I had to be, with 2,000 pounds of almonds.”

That commitment entailed seasoning and baking almonds overnight in borrowed commercial kitchens and literally selling her wares door to door. Early on, she started selling at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, and credits the face-to-face customer feedback it facilitated as key to the company’s continued success.

Today, Maisie Jane’s employs 16 people, and is moving its longtime processing location (which her husband Isidro manages) to new digs. In 2004, she opened the boutique specializing in local foods and crafts in a century-old historic building on Dayton Road, across the street from pristine almond orchards.

Hurtado noted there are few food manufacturers left today who grow, process and package their product. Maisie Jane’s also does custom processing and packaging for outside companies and sells almond products to national manufacturers (i.e., almond butter for power bars, etc.) as well as direct delivery to North State retailers.

“You definitely don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” she explained. “It’s essential to diversify your business in order to remain stable.”

The mother of three young girls said she values family above everything, and that balancing motherhood and career can be challenging.

“We want it to be a sustainable, viable business for years to come, and hope it’s here for our girls to be involved in if they choose to be.”