How Pop's Shop Became A $30 Million Business In Just Three Generations
A thread of entrepreneurship runs through the fabric of just about every American family. The lunch counter your great grandmother ran. The fishing boat your dad bought with his college buddies.
Most of these little businesses--the ones we fondly call mom-and-pop shops--were boarded up long ago, and their neon OPEN signs flicker only in family legend. Only one-third of family businesses in America survive long enough to be passed on to another generation--and two-thirds of those surviving businesses shutter before reaching a third generation.
But some refuse to go quietly. Like the Newark Nut Company.
Just a half-hour drive from New York City, in the placid residential town of Cranford, New Jersey, stands a bustling 60,000-square foot warehouse and the fast-growing e-commerce business it supports, Nuts.com. Snicker at the name if you must, but it's a thoroughly modern company that relies on Google Adwords and other online referrals to its trendy best-selling items, almond flour and chia seeds. Its CEO is thirty-three, has a hip haircut and drives a slate-grey hybrid Ford C-Max.
Online sales will drive more than $30 million in annual revenue for the site, whose primary competitor is Amazon.com. But one needs to look no further than the packaging on, say, Nuts.com's dried goji berries--loud solid-color zip-top bags with black caricature nuts and a custom-designed font called Nutcase that resembles all-caps handwriting--to read that the company's roots go back to Poppy Sol, who, in 1929, created The Newark Nut Company.
It was the eve of the Great Depression when Sol Braverman, the clean-shaven, disciplined son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, emerged from his teenage years into a booming Newark, New Jersey. At the age of twenty-two, he was presented with the opportunity to take over a small storefront on his hometown's Mulberry Street. It was close to Four Corners--then one of America's busiest intersections--and available, he was told, if he agreed to shoulder some debt.
He took the gamble on 99 Mulberry Street. Out of that little storefront and sidewalk, he sold nuts and dried fruits. As his family tells it, his combination of street smarts and sales savvy transformed that tiny operation into a thriving business that would, within a matter of years, support his family and employ thirty people.
The years were not always kind to Sol Braverman's business. In 1942, during World War II, Sol shipped out to serve the country in France and Germany, and his brother Morris took over. But Newark was becoming a tougher town in which to keep a retail operation afloat. Swing City entered its epic slump, from which it has yet to recover, and its Newark Nut Company struggled, too. Later in the 1940s, it was forced to sell its packaging and warehouse operations. But the Newark Nut Company persevered, even through the brutal Newark riots of July 1967, during which its warehouse was burnt to the ground. In more recent years, two of its retail locations were bulldozed in the name of urban development.
All along, though, the Braverman family grew. Two of Sol's children, Kenny (born in 1950) and Sandy (born in 1949), began lending a hand to the company business, before school, after school, and on weekends. "At four years old I started to work," Kenny Braverman, now smiley and mustachioed in his middle age, tells me. "I used to sell only quarter-pound bags--ten cents for a bag--because that's all I was able to lift."
Kenny went on to study engineering at the nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology (then called Newark College of Engineering) in 1968, but still spent weeknights closing up the store. He says today he never really intended to join the family business. But, truth is, he just didn't know any other way. He graduated in 1972. A few job possibilities failed to materialize. Through it all, he kept working at the little store on Mulberry Street.
"My father was a tough cookie to work with. Old fashioned," Kenny says. "I would come up with ideas when I was younger, and he'd go, 'nope, nope, nope.'"
Working alongside his brother, Kenny says he learned from his father not only how to run a business, but also precisely how he wanted to carry on the family's trade.
"I made up my mind back as a teenager working with my dad then that if I was going to get married and if I was going to have kids, I would never force them to come into business," Kenny says. "And if they did want to, and if they were smart enough, I would let them do what they wanted to do."
In 1984, urban renewal in downtown Newark finally claimed the little Newark Nut Company's original Mulberry Street location. But Kenny and Sandy, who'd been managing and expanding retail operations since the 1970s, dove even more deeply into the business, helping to strike a deal to buy a large land parcel down the street for a mall in Newark--the Mulberry Street Plaza--and securing other retail tenants for that space. (See both the 99 Mulberry Street shop and the Mulberry Street Plaza location in the video below).
It was engaging work, but not exactly fruitful. Downtown Newark continued its fade, and the mall was desolate. A healthy company dwindled down to a few Bravermans and two other employees. Revenue from the Mulberry Street Plaza space kept falling; the company's wholesale business was stagnant. Bankruptcy was nigh.
Amid the Bravermans' struggles to stay afloat, through the '80s and '90s, both Kenny and Sandy had kids: between them, three girls and two boys. Like their parents, they grew up helping around the shop. On weekends, Poppy Sol would ask a delivery driver to take him and his grandsons, Jeffrey and David, to a diner for lunch.
Sol Braverman, stoic and reserved in his old age, still came into work, though his failing eyesight meant he'd long given up serving customers. But he continued minding the back of the shop and bagging roasted peanuts until two weeks before he died in 1995, at the age of 88. What he didn't know was that in just three years the bright new future would appear.
No one raised an eyebrow in 1998 when Kenny's son, Jeffrey, went off to business school and purchased the URL NutsOnline.com. He spent much of his freshman year building the website, which would, very quickly, supplement its lagging retail sales. "My goal for the website was ten orders a day," Jeffrey says today.
Soon the site would change the company's entire focus. Today when the Web site is busy, it can get ten orders a minute. It operates out of that warehouse in Cranford, New Jersey--and that means despite having no significant retail presence (there's currently just a push-cart in Newark's Penn Station), business is once again booming.
Newark Nut Company--now Nuts.com, but more on that later--now employs 120 people, and will bring in more than $30 million this year. For this rebound, the family thanks its CEO: Jeffrey, the thirty-three-year old grandson of Poppy Sol. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School with a business degree and working for the buyout firm Blackstone Group for a few months, Jeffrey got restless, called his father, and announced he wanted back into the family business. As Kenny Braverman explains, "Jeffrey said, 'I want to come into business, but I want carte blanche.'"
Kenny remembered the promise he'd made to himself. "I said. 'that's fine with me.'"
In 2003, Jeffrey created a fresh business plan for scaling online sales, and started spending small bursts of money on Google Adwords. He hired a handful of programmers in California to work on the website, warehouse-fulfillment systems, and analytics. He tracked down the owner of the URL which would become the company's signature--Nuts.com--and struck a deal to purchase it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He set up a compensation plan for himself almost entirely linked to company profit growth.
That last component earned him the respect of the family: If his plan didn't work, nothing would be lost. If it did, he'd be rewarded for his hard work. "I basically took a little piece of this business that wasn't worth much," Jeffrey says, of the old retail operation, which would once notch total sales of $100 on a Saturday. "Turns out, that was pretty profitable."
"This basically is now his baby," says his dad, Kenny. "We gave him the platform--which is quite archaic, I admit--and he just took it to a new level."
One thing hasn't changed. Jeffrey's Nuts.com still keeps family front and center. They're on-site every single day of the week, and depicted as nut caricatures on every package of nuts, candy, and fruit the company sells. Cousin David heads up customer service. His father Kenny and uncle Sandy are both in management--though Jeffrey says he sometimes has to remind them that the old-school practices of sampling nuts or candy are now off-limits.
"My dad and my uncle are old school--they curse and they scream sometimes," Jeffrey says. "But I try to think of it as constructive."
Sometimes it's still a struggle for Kenny and Sandy to let go of old habits. One particularly busy holiday season several years ago, the family remembers working around the clock, packing and shipping the orders. The hour grew late. Orders kept streaming in from the website. The phone kept ringing, and finally Kenny bellowed across the warehouse to Jeffrey: "Shut it off! Shut it off!"
"What do you mean? We can't shut it off, Dad!" Jeffrey shouted back.
Kenny claims with a smile that this instance is the only time he truly questioned his son's judgment, and that in general, respect for Jeffrey--who today bears a striking resemblance to old photographs of his grandfather Sol--comes very easy for him.
"He'll let me have it and I'll let him have it. It's just wonderful," Kenny says. "We've both been in this business our whole lives. Only it was easier for him, because we had cash registers when he was a kid. I just had pockets of change."
Oh, and in case you're wondering, there is a fourth generation of Bravermans now. lined up for Nuts.com: Jeffrey and his cousin David each have a young son and a baby daughter.
No pressure, kids.
Newark Nut Company Through the Years
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.