Fortune Favors

Madison-based company looks toward national expansion

After swift growth in first five years, Fortune Favors rebrands and expands

Madison-based Fortune Favors handcrafts delicious candied pecans that evoke a positive sensory memory of sharing tasty, celebratory treats with family and friends at first bite. The company is the brainchild of Eric Rupert, a Madison-based chef for 45 years, most recently at Epic Systems. Initially known as Nutkrack, the company was founded by Rupert and COO Jess Benish in 2018 and rebranded to Fortune Favors in May 2023 The rebrand coincided with the company’s expansion into a new production facility in Cottage Grove, after five years of steady growth.

CEO Sam McDaniel began his relationship with Fortune Favors as a consultant in 2017, leveraging his background in food and wine operations to create a sales and marketing plan, then expanding the company’s sales process to access wholesale accounts. McDaniel joined Fortune Favors full-time in 2019 and moved into the role of CEO in June 2021.

Help from the SBDC

When the company participated in Food and Beverage Wisconsin FaBcap accelerator in 2019, McDaniel and the team learned about the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Wisconsin School of Business (SBDC) and began working with business consultant Amy Bruner Zimmerman in late 2020.

“We would not be where we are without Amy–she is amazing,” says McDaniel. “She has been a key part of what we’ve done, and we joke with her that there will be a wall of fame in our facility, and she will be on it.”

McDaniel says Zimmerman is one of a handful of people outside the company who have played a pivotal role in Fortune Favors’ evolution, from helping the team produce the financial projections they needed to secure an SBA building loan to providing general enthusiasm and support.

“Hearing, ‘You’ll figure it out; here’s what I’ve seen before,’ is such helpful insight from someone who knows what they’re talking about,” McDaniel says. “We’re passionate food people, and having Amy’s support to set our business up correctly has been a huge thing.” ~Sam McDaniel, CEO at Fortune Favors

McDaniel bounces challenges off Zimmerman and says her responses, rooted in extensive business experience, provide his team with actionable systems they can apply to specific situations.

“The fact that business consulting is free is mind-boggling,” McDaniel says. “I refer everyone to the SBDC.”

Zimmerman helped McDaniel’s team develop intensive financials, where they didn’t have much experience, and trained them in the process of becoming C-Suite executives, dividing responsibilities among themselves and applying their unique skill sets to specific action items.

“She helped us plug into the broader business community, which requires access and understanding,” McDaniel says. “Some people don’t have any access, which is a problem for everyone. It’s key to understand how to explain what you’re trying to do to someone who can help.”

McDaniel is eager to help publicize the SBDC’s free services, which have game-changing potential for BIPOC and women entrepreneurs in the Madison area. Fledgling business owners without access to capital or other resources can partner with the SBDC to receive free consulting, free training, and opportunities to network and learn how to access funding to launch and grow their businesses. For example, Fortune Favors switched from a large multinational bank to a small local bank and immediately had access to capital that had previously eluded the company.

“One thing we did that was hugely impactful, and we’re in a promotional video for them, is that we switched to Oak Bank in Fitchburg,” McDaniel says. “It’s a smaller bank, and we’re an important client for them. Jim McNulty, a business VP there, has worked with food businesses and knows how to help and how to anticipate what’s going to happen.”

Zimmerman was one of several advisors who recommended the switch.

“Just that step alone changed the course of our business,” says McDaniel. “That’s how we got the line of credit we now have and how we got our SBA loan for our facility. Having that path explained to us was hugely important.”

McDaniel emphasizes the importance of access to resources for small businesses, saying that like the SBDC’s free services, funds are available, but new business owners need to know how to access it.

“Like the SBDC, this money is out there, but people don’t know how to get it,” he says. “That’s sad, and we’ve all failed in making it so difficult. All this stuff is there, and people need to know about it. We hope to be able to pay this forward and help other new business owners, because there are a lot of great products being developed in our community.”

The SBDC helped Fortune Favors navigate federal financial processes during and after the pandemic.

“With Amy’s help, we secured almost 3.5 million dollars in EIDL  and SBA loans,” McDaniel says. “Other entrepreneurs in our sector looked at the building we own and couldn’t make it work, and we were able to because of Amy’s help.”

The company had such a positive experience with the SBDC that COO Jessica Benish attended an SBDC financial management course, and other team members attended a social media course.

Rebranding and growing

When Nutkrack rebranded to Fortune Favors, Zimmerman was involved from the beginning. McDaniel shared the idea to rebrand with her and talked about their approach and the pros and cons.

“We talked about what partners to seek out and how best to think about it,” McDaniel says. “She was the only person who saw the initial designs, before our spouses. She’s been in earlier than anyone else looking at our new packaging. She’s careful to cheerlead, answer questions, and not push any direction.”

Madison-based Planet Propaganda led the rebrand efforts (principal Dana Lytle is Rupert’s neighbor).

“Our community here in Madison is so supportive,” McDaniel says. “We talked with Amy about the opportunity costs and the impact of rebranding at the highest level. We see that impact now, with sales through the roof. We’re turning a massive corner in our direct and wholesale business. Now that people have seen our rebranded packaging, that’s inspired a different level of confidence in our partners and had massive effects. Our confidence came from Amy backing us up and saying, ‘You’re doing the right thing.’”

To spread the word about the product and brand, Fortune Favors is sticking with experiential marketing, getting the product in prospective customer’s hands.

“We recently introduced a new event called a “Snack Takeover,” where we go somewhere that sells our products for two or three hours and give away cans to get people to see the new brand,” says McDaniel. “It’s tremendously effective–people want to know why we’re giving it away and ask questions.”

Fortune Favors also has a partnership with Madison’s Overture Center, which McDaniel says aligns the company’s values with a community organization that supports those values.

“It’s our biggest partnership, and it’s hugely effective–it’s like someone else targeted our audience for us,” says McDaniel. “We’re positioned as well as we can be.”

What’s next for Fortune Favors

The company’s future is bright.

“We have some big hopes,” McDaniel says. “We know the product is the best out there–after five years, we don’t have qualms saying that out loud. Now that we have the branding and packaging to match the level of product quality, things are accelerating. Our biggest challenge is keeping up with growth on the staffing side, although the PR we’ve gotten from our brand change has helped with applications. We hope to take our wholesale business national, grow our ecommerce that ships from Madison, expand our corporate giving business, and add another experiential retail tourism stop at our facility in Cottage Grove.”

McDaniel has faith in the product and in his team.

“We’re so lucky to work with this product,” he says. “It’s a stunning thing to get your head around what it does to people’s brains. It’s this combination of a time machine and the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten. You see the way people react; they go back to these amazing sensory memory places in their minds. Everybody’s best memories are at a table, around food, with family and friends. This product gives you that powerful sensory experience more often.”

Fortune Favors’ leadership team possesses complementary skill sets: Rupert is the food guy, Benish handles fine details, and McDaniel focuses on the big picture. All three are committed to the idea of jobs as the company’s most important product, with food a close second.

“The quality of the jobs and work experience we provide is our most important product, ahead of confections,” McDaniel says. “Our average hourly rate is over $20 an hour; we provide paid personal time off and staff holidays, as well as  insurance, and we’re not even as far as we want to get. Amy has been a cheerleader for that.”

While the idea of labor as a controllable expense is embraced by some in the business world, Fortune Favors takes a different approach, and they’ve never had a temporary employee leave. In fact, their marketing and ecommerce manager was initially hired as a temporary holiday employee and got promoted.

“I was on WPR’s morning show recently, and Kate Archer Kent asked what we would say we need from the state legislature, and I said more promotion of available resources,” McDaniel says. “Small business support comes from infrastructural things, not tax breaks. It’s childcare, healthcare, and subsidies to help people work in jobs they want to work in. We’re able to get people because we can pay more, and we made the decision to make less money every year to do that. We keep pushing it.”