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Stroke survivor opens snack business

Neil Hughes of Willmar works at The Nutty Bavarian, his new business at the Kandi Mall in Willmar. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- It's easy to tell when you're getting close to The Nutty Bavarian snack stand in the Kandi Mall.

The heavenly aroma of warm cashews, pecans and almonds drifts in all directions from the stand just inside the Big Kmart store.

"It's the smell that sells," Neil Hughes said with a smile, the day after he opened his business. It's the company's slogan.

Hughes, of Willmar, said the business that he recently opened is the next step in his effort to become free of government assistance.

"As long as I can take care of myself, I want to," he said. "There's other people who need help more."

Hughes was farming with his family when he suffered a debilitating stroke at the age of 35. He has left side paralysis and walks with a cane and walker.

He has worked part-time at West Central Industries of Willmar.

"I feel I have a choice of the quality of life I want," Hughes said. "Choices available to the handicapped are not challenging enough for me, so I decided I have to take things into my own hands and be my own boss."

Now in his early 50s, Hughes is using a cash award he won last year to realize his dream.

The $5,000 Judd Jacobson Memorial Award was "the first step away from government services," Hughes said. The award honors Jacobson, a Minnesota business leader who became a quadriplegic as a result of a diving accident, and is administered by The Courage Center.

Hughes said there are some challenges in opening a small business when he has to do most everything with one hand, "but I can work around it."

Relco Inc. of Willmar helped him by fabricating equipment to allow him to put the roasted nuts in paper cones with one hand. His brother built the prototype, and Relco made a final version of smooth stainless steel.

"Where there's a will, there's a way -- it just takes a little bit of ingenuity," he said.

The Nutty Bavarian products make his job a bit easier, too. Nuts come packaged with sugar and spices, ready for roasting. Water and small flavor packets complete the mixture, and the roasting machine does the rest of the work. When the timer goes off, he adds a few ounces of water, which sends off a puff of fragrant steam.

Hughes also sells slushy drinks, called a Bavarian Blast. "Tell everybody to come on out, and we'll have a blast," he said and chuckled.

Roasting nuts seemed to be a natural business for him, he said. "I eat a lot of nuts because they're healthy for you." He decided he'd like to try roasting his own and looked it up on the Internet. That's how he found out about Nutty Bavarian.

The company, based in Orlando, has been in business since 1989 and has 1,000 licensees around the world.

Though he does love the product, he tries not to eat too many of the nuts, he said. "I can't be eating up all the profits; I practice self-control."

It took some time to deal with all the state rules and regulations in setting up a food business, he said. He wanted to be able to put his cart out in a central part of the mall but was told he needed to have a set of three sinks, one for washing hands and the others for washing equipment. Nutty Bavarian sells portable sink units, but they didn't pass muster with regulators.

He does a lot of walking in the mall and knew that Kmart had closed its snack bar, so he approached the store about setting up in the old snack bar area, which already has commercial equipment, including the sinks he needs.

The business will be open from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340