Star utility clerk switches careers to make the perfect gourmet marshmallows
Perri Wilson’s testimonial rang out above the whir of the KitchenAid mixer in the small, sweetly scented shop in downtown Caldwell.
“Mmmmmmm,” the retired florist moaned. “Oh, God. Oh, God, it’s soooo good.” She paused. Laughed. “Oh, my God, that’s so good. OK.” She pulled out her wallet. To buy a bag of marshmallows. For $9.99.
But Wilson wasn’t buying just any marshmallows. She was plunking down a ten-spot for a bag of Fireside Mallow Co. gourmet marshmallows, one of which she’d just sampled at Stacy and Russ Nelson’s commercial kitchen and retail outlet off Indian Creek Plaza.
If you told Stacy Nelson five years ago that she’d be betting her future on a 1.5-inch cube of fluffy sugar and air, she’d have told you that you were crazy. She was working full time as a utility billing clerk for Star Sewer and Water. She had no plans to reinvent herself. Especially not as a confectioner, creator of a dozen or so flavors of small-batch, gluten-free, artisanal marshmallows.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d be making marshmallows for a living,” laughed the 46-year-old cofounder of Fireside Mallow. “Ever.”
But Stacy and Russ Nelson are poster children for the old adage, “Never say never.”
Because in 2013, the idea hit them to start what they thought would be a side hustle at most, a hobby that would bring in a few bucks. In 2015, Stacy Nelson cut back her hours at the Star Sewer and Water District. And any day now she’ll quit for good and dedicate herself to Fireside Mallow 24/7. Because that’s what it takes to run a small business.
That may sound like rapid-fire progression. It was anything but.
“Methodical” is how Russ Nelson, 42, describes the growth of Fireside Mallow. “Brick by brick.”
The first brick was placed by their then-13-year-old daughter, Grace, who was graduating from Vision Charter School in Caldwell.
“My daughter was out roasting marshmallows with her friends for eighth-grade graduation,” Stacy Nelson said. “And she just came in with this crazy idea: ‘I think we should start a s’mores store.’ And we just got talking about it and thought, ‘gourmet marshmallows.’
“When we started this process, there really weren’t any others out there,” she continued. “So we didn’t have a lot to go on. We did find a few recipes online and started trying them. It took about a year to master the basic recipe. We tweaked a lot and came up with what we thought was the best.”
Once they got the vanilla marshmallow process down, the Nelsons started a catering business. They called it the S’mores Station and served their sweet treats at weddings, parties and other events.
Over the next year or so, two things happened. Catering customers started asking to buy the marshmallows by themselves. And the couple enrolled in a class at Boise State University offered by the Idaho Small Business Development Center. The class is called Lean Essentials Sprint. It’s a 10-session commitment.
“It transformed our business,” Stacy Nelson said.
The first lesson the Nelsons learned was to question everything. They questioned their own premise, their preconceived notions of what their product is. Then they went out and questioned “anyone who will stand still long enough to listen,” Russ Nelson said.
“We really thought, ‘We’re going to try to be gourmet, and that means we have to be organic’,” he said. “Vegan was going to be something that people were going to want, if we were going to take these to market.”
But what they discovered in the course of interviewing people for class, he said, was that, in Idaho, “most people don’t care” about vegan or organic. That was the biggest surprise. Organic, the people he interviewed told him, just means expensive. He talked to perfect strangers about GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Same thing.
Scratch organic. Scratch vegan.
Stacy: “We don’t use high fructose corn syrup. We use natural ingredients. We don’t use any preservatives. We do want to keep that clean, healthier treat.”
Russ: “But at the end of the day, we are a marshmallow company. Marshmallows are made of sugar, and that’s one reason people love them. They’re sweet. And ours are fluffy.”
They changed the name from S’Mores Station to Fireside Mallow.
“We pivoted our complete business model into the retail side, just selling our marshmallows, bags of marshmallows,” Stacy Nelson said. “We let the catering go, because we didn’t have time.”
Since taking Lean Essentials in 2016, the Nelsons figured out who their core customers are: mostly women and people who like to camp.
They learned how to approach customers and suppliers. They opened a small retail store at 111 S. Kimball Ave. in Caldwell, although its hours will be sporadic until Stacy Nelson leaves her day job later this year. Her husband, who is general manager of a Schwan’s Co. site in Fruitland, is staying put; his job has health insurance. They decline to disclose their sales.
They’ve branched out from the original vanilla to create flavors such as toasted coconut, chocolate chip mint, cookies and cream, birthday cake, raspberry and lemon. Their huckleberry marshmallows are made with huckleberry jam from Homemade by Dorothy, another Idaho company. Monkey Bizness – which will soon be rechristened Banana Bread – includes chocolate chips and chopped walnuts in a banana-flavored marshmallow.
Their wares can be found at Bretz RV & Marine in Nampa, Bish’s RV in Twin Falls and Meridian, Idaho Made in Boise and Ketchum Kitchen. Perhaps their biggest coup was to get shelf space in the new Albertsons on Broadway in Boise, which has commissioned blue and orange marshmallows for reasons obvious to any Boisean.
The biggest piece of advice the Nelsons would offer anyone wanting to reinvent themselves is to go very, very slowly.
“That was kind of the premise of Lean Essentials,” Russ Nelson said, “trying not to go broke. You see so many people, the first thing they do is go out and buy a big shiny vehicle and put their name on it because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Make sure you’re a viable company first, Stacy Nelson added, before you spend money you don’t have.
Russ: “We really tried the brick-by-brick mentality of doing this thing, not going into a ton of debt, letting the business feed itself.”
Stacy: “That’s why it’s going to be able to feed us some day.”
Russ: “We don’t have anything on our vehicles, not even a sticker. … One day, we’ll have our vehicle wrapped. But we’re just not there yet. And I have no intention of doing it until the marshmallows pay for it.”