BY NAOMI INMAN
Follow the road to Aurora — and a bit of your curiosity — to meet a unique Oregon agriculture entrepreneur. As you pull off Highway 99 and walk through the red door of the unassuming Pacific Hazelnut gift shop, you’ll meet an equally unassuming auto manufacturing engineer turned hazelnut wizard.
With a brimming smile, as broad as the Ford truck he drove to work that day, Andrew Halls’ crisp British accent and the spark of fun in his eye hint there’s a bit more to this operation than meets the eye. Shelves are lined with magical treats, a tribute to the world-class Oregon hazelnut. The only thing you won’t see is the wizard’s pointy hat.
“He’s literally the wizard behind the curtain for the Oregon hazelnut,” said Lisa Pascoe, a 24-year employee of neighboring Northwest Hazelnut Co. “He does all the retail packs for us at Northwest Hazelnut, Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (Wilco), George Packing Company, and numerous small companies who put hazelnuts on the retail shelf.”
“He makes Oregon hazelnut processors look brilliant, but it’s his work and innovation in flavor and packaging that’s creating an amazing retail presence for the Oregon hazelnut,” Pascoe affirms.
“A wizard?!” Andrew laughs. “I’m just doing what I love! I get a high — a lot of self-gratification — from making my customers happy. Part of me loves to solve problems. It was the same in automotive when I turned factories around.”
And it is FUN to hear how Andrew turned this little factory around.
In early 2010 Andrew packed up his entrepreneurial spirit and landed in the Pacific Northwest from Toronto, Canada. A 30-year veteran of auto manufacturing for Ford Motor Company, he asked a business broker to find him “something in manufacturing where I can be my own boss.”
“I know of a distressed candy making factory in Aurora,” the broker told Andrew. He was soon on the road to Aurora to meet the founder, Ersel Christopherson (who famously made hazelnut toffee in his kitchen with his wife, Joan, and was featured in Bon Appetit magazine). One quick spin through the factory and he said, “I’ll buy it!”
By September, he was churning chocolate hazelnuts under his Pacific Hazelnut label and climbing a steep learning curve, which he describes more like a “hockey stick” (60% of production occurs October through December). When he noticed local hazelnut growers sending their nuts to California for packing, he quickly deduced how to turn his operation around.
“I called every competitor and asked, ‘Why are you shipping your hazelnuts to California? Come to me.’” He put his wizardry to work, studying the market, knowing what sells, offering competitive pricing and small run sizes, plus the one piece of magic that keeps his customers coming back like ants to — well — a candy store. Customization, personalization and innovation touch every aspect from packaging and flavoring to the chocolate, colors, and roasts. He scales production to his customer’s market, business, or event (as small as 50 pounds), making a retail presence possible for any size grower or company.
“The customer is my hero,” says Andrew. “They have a vision and we get to pull that out of them. When he or she says, ‘That’s what I was looking for!’ I know I’ve got a winner.” One trade secret he happily gives away is listening to the customer. “Every time someone walks in the door I’m listening,” he says, “and they’re asking for a piece of Oregon.”
His first packing customer in 2011 has grown three-fold. In the five seasons since, Pacific Hazelnut has grown over ten-fold. He’s recently achieved both Organic and Free Trade certifications and is gearing up for another “hockey stick” ascent in 2017.
In his test kitchen, Andrew leans over the same copper kettles Ersel and Joan once used. He keeps on perfecting recipes: panning and enrobing hazelnuts, almonds, coffee beans, and other Oregon fruit, for a growing list of customers who know that Andrew listens. Like the engineer he is, he studies the markets and future trends for the Oregon hazelnut.
Without the Wizard, where would Oregonians go for a “piece of Oregon?” In high season, busloads of tourists stop at Pacific Hazelnut daily, buying up “pieces of Oregon” ‘til the shelves are bare. Around the Pacific Northwest — whether the label reads Pacific Hazelnut, Northwest Hazelnut Company, Oregon Orchard, or one of the other local brands; and whenever you find local hazelnut products at Coastal Farm & Ranch, Wilco Farm Store, Made in Oregon, Roth’s IGA, or a number of local farms — you can then pull back the curtain to trace most every cleverly customized retail pack to Andrew Halls and his magic wand at a small, but spunky, candy factory in historic Aurora, Oregon.
THE WIZARD’S ORIGINAL RECIPES
When developing new flavors and products Andrew works as a team with Tom and Jorge, experimenting in the original test kitchen. It usually takes two to three weeks and several batches to achieve perfection and document the process and recipe. Every flavor profile is unique to Pacific Hazelnut. Here’s a short list of flavor innovations:
- Original Hazelnut Toffee
- Chocolate Flavors (panned, enrobed or double-dipped)
- Milk Chocolate
- Dark Chocolate
- White Satin Chocolate
- Salted Carmel Chocolate