Sibling team Bonnie and Schecky Miluso sitting on boxes of figs and almonds in the Napa Nuts warehouse. (Brent Augustine)
Sibling team Bonnie and Schecky Miluso sitting on boxes of figs and almonds in the Napa Nuts warehouse. (Brent Augustine)

Siblings are taking a crack at family business Napa Nuts

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

When Schecky and Bonnie Miluso were growing up in Napa, they had a typical older-brother younger-sister relationship.

So if you had told them that they would end up running a business together, and that Bonnie, now 40, would be her 43-year-old brother’s boss, they would have said you were nuts.

Nuts … like Napa Nuts, which is the name of the siblings’ business.

Originally called Rosenthal’s Dried Fruit and Nuts, it was a business that their parents, Allen and Maxine, bought from George and Lottie Rosenberg nearly 30 years ago. George helped found Temple Beth Shalom in Napa in 1953 and was “the pillar that supported the community” for decades, according to his 1998 obituary in J., and the Miluso family was very involved at the synagogue (Mom and Dad were board members, and the kids each had b’nai mitzvahs there).

Allen and Maxine had other careers, but they were looking for a small business that would give them more flexibility. They bought the dried fruit and nut business in 1990, when Bonnie was 11 and Schecky 13. Shortly after the sale, an order including a number of substandard pistachios arrived, and the siblings had to sort through them on the dining room table to determine which were good enough to be sold.

Another memory from the early years: A big seller was a wine bottle filled with smoked almonds and pistachios in the shell. Even though there was a machine that could do the tedious work of filling the bottles, the Milusos figured their children could do it instead. “So we spent hours pouring nuts into the tiny necks of wine bottles,” Schecky recalled.

A sampling of Napa Nuts products. (Bonnie Miluso)
A sampling of Napa Nuts products. (Bonnie Miluso)

After those tasks, it’s not surprising that Schecky went into teaching and lived for years in San Diego with his wife and son, while Bonnie went to law school and worked in litigation in Oakland. (She now lives on a farm in Sebastopol with her wife, the drummer in the local tribute band Fleetwood Macrame).

Every few months, Shecky said, his parents would remind him that the business was there if he wanted it. But it was Bonnie who decided to give it a go first.

“I realized I could start my own law firm, or I can try to work for Mom and Dad and see how that goes,” she said.

With her father, who died in September, pretty much retired by the time she joined in 2014, it took two years before her mother was ready for her to become CEO. In February 2018, Schecky gave up teaching and came on as client relations manager.

The siblings say they balance each other out: as the CEO, Bonnie is focused on the bigger picture, while Schecky handles a lot of the details.

While Allen and Maxine’s style was to drive around Napa Valley bringing samples to new restaurants, their children have expanded their online presence and relationships with specialty and high-end grocers. Tech-company snack rooms have become a new market, and they also are a copacker, offering tins of Napa Nuts branded with another company’s logo.

They source local nuts and dried fruits as much as possible, and have some pretty high-end clients; Thomas Keller, chef and proprietor of French Laundry and other restaurants, has been one for years.

Bonnie Miluso of Napa Nuts with Skittles, a rescued Aracari. (Bonnie Miluso)
Bonnie Miluso of Napa Nuts with Skittles, a rescued Aracari. (Bonnie Miluso)

When Maxine gave over control to Bonnie, she made sure their employees would be taken care of. Many of them had been there for more than a decade, and the company offers good benefits like flexible hours and paternity leave. (They also donate a good amount of product to bird rescue centers.) Including Bonnie and Schecky, there are seven full-time employees and eight part-timers.

Bonnie said she had a lot to learn from her mother when she first took over, and even now, “I don’t know if we’re always doing the right thing, but we’re still here so we’re doing something right.”

“Don’t tell Bonnie, but I give her a lot of credit,” Schecky said. “I’m building on the foundational blocks that she put in place. And, while we weren’t business people, it’s in our blood. Our dad liked to talk about himself and that meant we never got away without hearing what was going on with the business.”

It’s important to both of them that Napa Nuts is still in the family. “There’s a real value to being the second generation to run a family-owned business,” she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."