austiNuts Wholesale Inc.: Gourmet Nuts and Gifts

Doron Ilai founded austiNuts Wholesale Inc. (austiNuts) in 1993 as an effort to bring tasty Mediterranean-style dry-roasted nuts to the United States. “I came from Israel,” says Ilai. “People snack on nuts and dry fruits there on a regular basis.” While obtaining his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, Ilai was disappointed in the quality of roasted nuts sold at local grocery stores. After graduating and beginning a private practice in psychology, Ilai decided to pursue another venture. He launched a Mediterranean-style nut roasting company aimed at providing Texans fresher and better tasting nuts and seeds.

Ilai’s answer: austiNuts, which started as a retail store. “We had a kitchen where we were dry-roasting nuts,” explains Ilai. The kitchen in the original austiNuts store had the capacity to produce roasted nuts at 100 pounds per hour, which, Ilai says, “is obviously much more than a single retail store needs.” From day one, Ilai and his team were anxiously knocking on doors, seeking wholesale clients.

Ilai’s persistence worked, and austiNuts opened an online retail operation in the late 1990s to boost business. The company now offers a wide variety of products to customers all over the country. “Most of our products are distributed in Texas,” saya Ilai, who further explains his business has also reached large chains, including national grocery chains, club stores and specialty retailers. Though the startup was challenging, Ilai says sales were growing continuously and within three years austiNuts was turning a profit.

New Takes on Classic Snacks

Ilai’s austiNuts now offers a wide assortment of tasty snacks, including classic dry-roasted nuts, nuts and snack mixes, candies, chocolates and even dried fruit. Ilai also has made it as easy as possible for customers to browse bulk candy, nuts and even more in the store and online. Ilai didn’t stop there; austiNuts also fills custom orders for clients ordering a large amount of product. “If you call our retail store and say you need 25 pounds of salted almonds, cashews, et cetera, we can roast all of them in parallel,” explains Ilai. “Most commercial roasters don’t roast multiple items at the same time, so they have a slower turnaround time for custom orders than we have.”

And again, Ilai’s persistence prevailed. Over the last few years, Ilai says that his team has greatly expanded austiNuts’ selection of snack mixes. “We do a lot of trail mixes too,” he explains. “But we’ve found there’s a great interest in snack mixes.” Nuts are expensive, and Ilai says part of the popularity of austiNuts’ mixes is due to the slow economy. The snack mixes are more affordable, and the business took advantage of that aspect by offering up some interesting combinations. “Using all of these different ingredients, we’ve created a large variety of flavor and texture combinations,” elaborates Ilai.

One of the company’s innovative snack offering is its Sweet Wasabi Mix, which contains wasabi peanuts, wasabi peas, dried pineapple, dried cranberries, honey sesame sticks and roasted peanuts. This product is in addition to austiNuts’ hundreds of products, which include nuts, seeds and fruits of many varieties. To mix up the flavor, Ilai says, “We also have 12 to 15 different seasonings and spices.” These spices can be added to nuts or nut mixes to create unique offerings like habanero or chili lime peanuts, or even specialty snacks like South of the Border Mix.
Building a Business

Throughout the years Ilai has been proactive about his company’s growth. He is constantly seeking – and taking advantage of – business opportunities that will spread his product’s footprint, as well as reel in loyal customers. It is evident that Ilai has built up his business through taking initiative, and while he says it took some time to learn the ins and outs of running a business, Ilai has certainly made austiNuts a great success.
AustiNuts’ business model was built around the features that set the company apart from other businesses in the industry. One of the biggest differences in the company’s products is the team’s roasting technique. Most North American nut roasters use oil in the roasting process, but Ilai was set on sticking to tradition in hopes of achieving that flavorsome Mediterranean taste unique to dry-roasted nuts, which put this entire business in motion. “I went back to Israel during a Christmas break,” recalls Ilai. “I got in touch with some roasting companies and trained with the masters to acquire the skills necessary all the way from the kitchen to buying and sourcing.”

When he returned to Texas, Ilai designed the shop around the kitchen and roasting equipment. “I was the first to bring that concept to Texas,” he explains, adding that there are few similar businesses in the country. “There are mostly small, ethnic stores on the East Coast or West Coast,” says Ilai. Ilai’s exotic snacks were well received in Austin and in-store retail quickly blossomed with wholesale contracts following shortly behind. Today, Ilai’s team continues an aggressive approach to picking up new business.

“We’ve gotten very involved with the city,” he says. “We are developing a guitar-shaped container filled with nuts and other goodies to be sold throughout Austin to reinforce the city’s reputation as the live music capital of the world.” AustiNuts was acknowledged in 2011 by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which recognized the company with a reward in the small business category for innovation and uniqueness.
Despite challenges in the beginning and the recent recession, austiNuts continues to expand and improve as a business. “Some of the adjustments we’ve made have been very successful,” Ilai says of recent production streamlining and product diversification, and Ilai’s flexibility has become a major factor in austiNuts’ success. There is no doubt that devotion to quality, consistency and market adaptability has made austiNuts Wholesale Inc. a stand-out member of Austin’s broad, unique food industry.