Mountain Man Fruit and Nut Co.
Mountain Man Fruit and Nut Co. (Mountain Man) believes in doing things the old-fashioned way. Whether it’s pushing a confectionery cart door-to-door or handcrafting a range of premium snack foods in-house, the Colorado-based company has been satisfying salty and sweet cravings for nearly 40 years. “Mountain Man has 150 franchisees covering 30 states,” reveals Mike Conner, second-generation vice president of Mountain Man. “From insurance companies to banks, attorney offices to retail establishments, we wheel a cart that carries up to 150 pounds of product.”
All in all, the Mountain Man brand has approximately 300 stock keeping units (skus) of various products, from dried fruit to chocolate covered nuts and homemade granola to classic candies. “Our carts typically carry 75 to 100 skus of product,” details Mike. “We’re selling direct to those folks stuck behind a counter who can’t get away for lunch or people who are tired of the same old vending machine choices.”
Mike admits it’s a very different way of doing business. “Direct marketing isn’t dead in the age of the Internet,” he says. “Sure, it’s more challenging than it’s ever been before, but there are still folks who appreciate what we do.”
With plants in Salem, Oregon and Parker, Colo., the company has over 90,000 square feet of production and warehouse capacity. Furthermore, Mountain Man has 100 employees who support 12 regional retail stores, as well as distributor franchisees from Oregon to Washington, California to Nebraska and beyond. “For the most part, we serve all states west of the Mississippi,” says Mike. That’s an impressive geographical footprint for a company that Mike says started out as somewhat of an accident.
An unlikely sweet success
Back in the late 1970s, Mike’s father, David Conner, president and CEO of Mountain Man, found himself in a predicament. “He originally owned a sign company in Nebraska,” recounts Mike. “Our family eventually moved to Colorado and my father took a job with a sound-proof insulation company, but the company had a terrible fire and burned to the ground. With a wife and two kids, Dad had to figure out really quick what he was going to do.”
And Dad pulled through. “He thought back to the gift baskets we made that included dried fruit and nuts for clients at his previous company,” continues Mike. “People loved them, so we got this crazy idea that maybe we could sell dried fruits and nuts until he found full-time employment.”
By 1977 the concept for Mountain Man was well in the works and the Conners didn’t waste any time. “With Mom [Virgina] working hard each day packaging product and watching after the boys, Dad started pounding the pavement, taking products door-to-door at local businesses from doctors’ offices to law firms, banks, corporate offices, you name it,” Mike says proudly. “After a short time, our products were very well received. People not only appreciated the convenient service, but the freshness and quality of the product itself.”
Although the company has grown considerably, that’s still what Mountain Man is known for; the freshest, high-quality snacks. “We’ve diversified quite a bit,” shares Mike. “We still sell directly to local businesses, but we’re making inroads to grocery and convenience stores through different lines that emphasize quality and freshness. We are also expanding upstream with the recent acquisition of a pistachio farm and land for future walnut and pecan orchards that will allow us to be more competitive, as well as ensure we never miss a beat when it comes to delivering freshness.”
Room for new opportunities
Mountain Man first started making its way onto more store shelves in response to the recession. “For the first 30 years we were very set in what we did; we sort of had tunnel vision,” Mike explains. “But with the onset of the recession, we lost business, so it was either reinvent ourselves or start laying folks off.”
However, Mike remained positive. “Seeing something that you have been conditioned to ignore for many decades, because it’s just not what you do, is not easy, but in our case it was necessary,” adds Mike. “Being debt-free allowed us to survive the economic downturn, but discovering that there were other markets we could sell into helped the company achieve an even better financial footing than before the recession.”
Mike assures reinventing and reassessing is never a bad thing in this business, because it’s constantly changing. “You have to keep trying to figure out what you can bring to the table that’s different from someone else,” he says. “That’s why we’re constantly developing new products. Lately it’s been a lot of granola and trail mixes and we’re also working on a smartphone app to allow distributors to ring up cart customers with credit cards and it will allow customers to request a certain item ahead of time via smartphone.”
While Mountain Man has grown over the last four decades, Mike says the company remains just the right size. “Our size gives us the opportunity to meet customers’ needs better than larger firms,” he explains. “We can create a customized product and people really enjoy that, but it is more than just that. You really do have to treat people right. We’ve had a lot of success from it. There’s a little luck involved and it may help you find a customer, but you don’t form connections and relationships that last for years unless you treat the customer right.”
Mountain Man Fruit and Nut Co. continues to build a following based in good old-fashioned, face-to-face customer service backed by premium products.