Side hustlers: Q&A with an interior designer turned walnut farmer

Heap of walnut kernels with scoop on gray background. Top view.
Photo credit: TanyaSid/Getty Images

Interior designer Nicole Facciuto took her family’s walnut farming business and turned it into a profitable side hustle. Now, she’s sharing her tips and tricks for turning hobbies into financial wins.

The farm, Corky’s Nuts, is operated by Facciuto’s family in Northern California, while Facciuto maintains the business side of things with her husband in Southern California.

To maintain superior quality, the walnuts are only harvested and shipped out once a year when they are perfectly ripe. Customers can order walnuts anytime, but they won’t receive them until after the first week of December. This means a short window annually for a lot of profit, but Facciuto’s current focus is expanding the business to create a longer window for sales. This includes producing other walnut products, such as walnut butter and cold-pressed walnut oil, at their recently opened facility in Southern California.

corky's nuts walnuts and oatmeal
Photo credit: Corky’s Nuts

Facciuto realized the potential of her walnut business thanks to her business experience running her own company when she lived in New York for a time. While learning how to run a walnut business hasn’t been a breeze, Facciuto shares encouragement and advice for those interested in starting their own side hustle.

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Learn more about Nicole Facciuto and her walnut farm in our Q&A below.

GRATEFUL: How did the walnut farm originally start?

NICOLE FACCIUTO: I was 4 years old when my dad planted the first orchard, and he taught himself how to grow walnuts. He wasn’t a farmer, he was actually a Japanese landscape architect and he trained in Japan. I was born in Japan, and after I was born, they ended up [moving to] this amazing property.

When I was 4 and my brother was born, it kind of sunk in that they have this land and if they grew something [it could provide] a little bit more income. We may as well use the land to grow something and provide to people. And that’s how this walnut farm started.

G: When did you realize your walnuts had potential?

NF: About five years ago when I met my husband [Eric], I shared with him about my upbringing and the farm. And he, being the awesome human being that he is, went to the store to buy a bag of organic walnuts.

I came to visit him and he was like, “I got you these organic walnuts!” I literally was like, “That’s so sweet.” I didn’t think anything of it. I was like, yeah, I never buy walnuts, but OK, cool. And I looked at the bag, and most bags that sell walnuts are clear so you can really see what the walnuts look like. And in all of my years, I had never once looked at a bag of walnuts in the store. I took one look at the bag and I could see these walnuts didn’t look fresh.

I turned it over and I looked to see if I could find the expiration date, and the date was like a year from when I was holding the bag. So I opened up the bag and immediately was like, holy cow, OK. Yeah, these are bad. I then, of course, took a bite ‘cause I had to. I took a bite and I thought I had to spit it out. Eric looked at me and I was like, “I know that this isn’t very nice,” and I started to explain to him what I was discovering.

This bag was not what I enjoyed, and these are bad, dry, bitter walnuts. In the days following, I went around to other stores, just looking at their walnuts. It dawned on me why everyone kept saying when I shared our walnuts, “Oh, my God, these are amazing. How do I get them?” Because their past experiences were of these bad, bitter, yucky, rancid [store-bought] walnuts.

G: How did you begin building the brand?

NF: All of our branding, everything that you see online was all created just between me and my husband. We literally created this with $100.

corkys nuts bag
Photo credit: Corky’s Nuts

G: How did you educate yourself about running a walnut business?

NF: Everything has been just asking questions and doing research. Like when I found we needed a commercial kitchen space, I was learning everything about it, all the permits that we need, etc. We’re certified organic. We have inspections every year. I’m learning how to maintain a facility. We only process organic walnuts, so it’s super straightforward.

I’ve had so many friends who are either part of the restaurant industry or in some way, shape or form in the business side of managing a commercial kitchen. I’m not afraid to just ask how to do something right. I remember having a conversation with the county inspector for commercial kitchens and we hit a roadblock. And I was like, “How do I make this work? How do we do it?” She helped me come up with an answer to get over the hurdle. She said at the end of the conversation, “I always tell people, if you’re opening up a food facility, you’ve got a screw loose in your head.”

G: When did you realize your business was taking off?

NF: Within the [first] three weeks we made $7,000 in sales. It was awesome. I had no idea what the actual cost of the labels and the bags were. This was our test and then we harvested, packed everything, shipped everything out. And then that’s when the feedback started to come.

People [were] saying, “Holy cow, these are the most amazing walnuts we’ve ever had.” You can just look at the reviews and read. It’s essentially the same thing after the same thing, just from a different perspective.

G: Does Corky’s Nuts produce anything besides walnuts?

NF: As we process walnuts, we [get these] small pieces that we don’t want to put in the bag. We take those pieces and make the raw organic butter and also the cold-pressed organic walnut oil. And that was just me saying, “Hey, we have this extra stuff that we could sell, but what could we create with it so that we can provide a product that is year-round?” We have a certain amount of walnuts that we hold for those items so that when someone does come to visit our website, they’re not leaving empty-handed. If they wanted to try the butter or oil, they can get it. They might have to wait for the walnuts, but that’s just that’s how the walnut falls from the tree.

corky's nuts fresh walnut halved
Photo credit: Corky’s Nuts

G: What challenges have you faced while running this business?

NF: The process of creating Corky’s Nuts and building this [company] and learning how to make everything. We do everything ourselves. I make the butter, my husband and I put the labels on the jars, we ship everything. We don’t have a huge team of people who are doing this. We hire seasonal friends and family when we’re getting money in December. But we’re still very hands on, there are no production lines, there’s no label machine, although there should be a label machine. We just haven’t — I can’t get around to spending $300 on that just yet.

G: Since Corky’s Nuts is also a family farm, how do you divide up the responsibility?

NF: My parents are on the farm now, so they manage the farm, The two of them and my husband and I live about four and a half hours away. They’re in Northern California and we’re in Southern California. We actually just took another big step and are creating our own commercial kitchen. We [wanted a] small commercial kitchen so that we could produce things like our oil and butter. We’re literally building our own production space where my husband and I live. And again, totally new to me. Never done that, and we weren’t necessarily expecting to do it. We’re doing all of this while my husband has a full-time job and I have a full-time job. We make it work.

G: What sets Corky’s Nuts apart from other walnut farms?

NF: Since my dad is a Japanese landscape architect, his commitment to aesthetics and plants and nature and continuity is extremely high. His vision of taking care of live plants is in his heart. That’s where it stems from: beauty and care. As the industry has evolved, you plant trees closer and closer together so that they’re really stifled, but it yields a higher production. [My dad] was always like, nope, not interested in that. He treats his trees and the land as if it were a garden. It doesn’t look like a Japanese garden, but you can just tell he’s super in touch with everything that goes on. That’s something that, as I am now more involved, I’ve really noticed.

corky's nuts walnut farm
Photo credit: Corky’s Nuts

G: What advice do you have for people who want a side hustle of their own?

NF: Listen to what lights you up inside and follow that and keep following it. And if you realize that in a couple of years you don’t want to do it anymore, it’s OK to stop. I think we get kind of held up and like, “Oh, but I put so much energy into it.” Sell it, give it away, do something. Don’t do it because other people are doing it. Do it because you really want to and you couldn’t imagine not doing it at the end of your life.

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G: What goals do you have for your business?

NF: Even this year alone we’ve been growing and we’ve been setting the foundation for how we can serve more people. I would love if everyone who enjoyed putting healthy food into their bodies was able to taste a fresh walnut. Right now people don’t know that there’s a difference.

G: Where do you see Corky’s Nuts in five years?

NF: In five years I would love us to be in full functioning mode. Even just growing more, maybe even growing out of this facility that we’re in right now.

I want people to really know Corky’s Nuts. At the end of the day, there are so many brands out there that a lot of people know about. We don’t need to be a Pepsi. I don’t mind being a dark horse. I think for me it’s just about awareness. I would just love for more people to know that there’s an alternative to what they’re experiencing.

Looking for a recipe for those Corky’s Nuts? Check out our keto coffee cake recipe here:

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