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Pelican Rapids pistachio business is a family affair

CJ Holl of Pelican Rapids, Minn., smokes pistachios and sells them as Pelican Pete's Pistachios. Mike McFeely / The Forum1 / 3
Pistachios fresh out of the smoker cool before being packaged by Pelican Pete's Pistachios. (Contributed photo)2 / 3
Pelican Pete's Pistachios are made at the Muddy Moose, a restaurant in Pelican Rapids, Minn. From left are Brittney Dokken of the Pelican Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Lily Holl, Bridgette Holl, CJ Holl, Daisy Holl and Diane Hanson of the chamber. (Contributed photo)3 / 3

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — How many food businesses have been started by the constant urging of friends and family using the words, "You should really sell these"?

Too many, maybe. The path of entrepreneurship is likely littered with hundreds (thousands?) of delicious ideas that couldn't be mass marketed.

That's the way Pelican Pete's Pistachios in this Minnesota lakes country town got started, with the urging. But we're here to tell you CJ Holl and his family might be onto something with their infant business. They have a product that is delicious, unique, marketable and relatively easy (and affordable) to make.

These are pistachios. This is Minnesota. Who doesn't enjoy salty snack nuts washed down with a cold beer in an ice-fishing house or corner bar?

"We'll see where it goes, but we think we have a pretty good product," Holl said recently, sitting in the Muddy Moose restaurant on Broadway in Pelican Rapids.

Yes, flavored pistachios are common. But the hook with Pelican Pete's (named after the town's namesake statue that stands near the Pelican River) is that they are smoked. Not smoke-flavored. Actually smoked in a small commercial-grade smoker just like the one in which Holl smokes ribs and brisket and any other kind of meat he can get his hands on. He does so competitively, meaning he knows the difference between hickory and applewood.

The result is a pistachio with a unique, deep, rich smoked flavor that Holl believes is unlike anything else made commercially. He and his wife, Bridgette, actually bought many different brands of flavored pistachios during their research into starting Pelican Pete's and they believe nobody else smokes nuts like they do.

Holl began smoking pistachios years ago as an experiment. They turned out delicious, so he handed out bags and jars filled with the nuts to friends and family for Christmas or birthdays. Then came the inevitable words: "You should really sell these."

So Holl and his wife began to look into it. She is a teacher at Pelican Rapids High School and he is the school district's business manager, so they viewed Pelican Pete's as a side business. The Holls have a background in the food industry. They owned eight Subway restaurants in Minnesota (Ada, Barnesville, Hawley) and South Dakota before selling them several years ago.

"We did that for 13 years. Being in the restaurant business and running the retail side of things is very taxing. We wanted to do something different, so we moved here and got jobs with the school district," Holl said.

The Holls began selling pistachios about a year and a half ago. They got proper licensing from the state of Minnesota and reached an agreement with the Muddy Moose to smoke the pistachios in the restaurant's commercial kitchen.

CJ buys California pistachios in bulk and smokes 40 or more pounds at a time, depending on how many orders he has. He spreads the nuts on a tray, coats them with a secret five-ingredient seasoning (one taste and you'll know it includes salt) and smokes them for about two hours at 225 degrees.

After the pistachios cool they are put into 3-ounce bags, labeled and shipped out. The Pelican Pete's web site (www.pelicanpetespistachios.com) also sells boxes and jars of the nuts. Everything is done by hand.

"This is micro-entrepreneurism," Holl said. "Our packaging and labeling department is our two daughters."

That would be 13-year-old Lily and 10-year-old Daisy. The entire employee roster is the Holl family.

"It's truly a family affair, which keeps the overhead down," CJ jokes.

Sales are split about evenly between 30 retail locations and online. The pistachios are available mostly in stores between Pelican Rapids and the Twin Cities—$5 for a three-ounce bag, $12 for a three-pack—although a winery in Wisconsin is Holl's best customer. An opportunity to participate in the MN Cup, a start-up competition hosted by the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, led to Pistachio Pete's being carried by two Williams-Sonoma stores in suburban Edina, Minn.

Holl has done some successful targeted marketing in southern states where barbecue is popular like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and Mississippi. But mostly, he said, "people just sort of discover us."

"We do everything by hand now, but it's a product that could easily be scaled up. If it ever went nuts, it could be ramped up," Holl said. "For now it's a fun family side business. Where it goes, I don't know. Maybe I'll be the Steve Jobs of pistachios."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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