As a firefighter and paramedic, Richard Pauwels was used to being on the go as a first responder. In his 20-year career with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Pauwels spent the last 12 working in Malibu. It was while fighting brush fires locally that a business was born and a new career forged.
“One thing I noticed while fighting brush fires: You could be out there six to 10 hours working without much opportunity to eat a meal. Most of the guys would snack on trail mix or snack bars,” Pauwels said—though on that diet, he “started to get GI symptoms.”
Pauwels did some research and read, “If you’re eating a lot of nuts and not sprouting them, that due to the lectin and phytic acid content, you could get symptoms X,Y and Z, and I have two of the three.” Pauwels stared experimenting with sprouted nuts, which are soaked overnight to activate vitamins and minerals. He ate his soaked nuts and soon realized: “This is good. I’m not getting bloated or gassy. This is awesome.”
But, the recently retired firefighter realized you can’t store soaked nuts. They must be refrigerated or eaten right away.
“Putting them in the refrigerator was OK, but now you have this cold and mushy thing,” he explained. “Not appetizing.” Pauwels then started dehydrating the nuts to bring back the crunch and said he got a second “aha moment.” Pauwels seasoned his dehydrated nuts with fresh grown herbs like sage and rosemary. They were a hit.
Working out of Fire Station 88 on Malibu Road behind Ralphs, Pauwels started making nuts for himself as well as his friends and family. Within a few months, he said, he was sharing so many nuts that he realized he was “doing 100 pounds of cashews a month, costing about $700.” He went to his friends and family and said, “I love you guys, but you’re going to have to start paying me for this.” Everyone was on board.
He started putting the nuts in brown paper bags stamped “Rich Nuts” and a business was born. At the same time, however, Pauwels was dealing with a back and knee injury. In his last two years as a firefighter, the injuries worsened and he was retired by the department.
“One door closed and another door opened,” the budding entrepreneur explained. “So, I leaned into the nut business.” Pauwels officially retired in March of this year, after two decades of service.
You might see the former firefighter promoting his product locally while wearing a kilt.
“I personally think they’re fun. I was in the Navy reserve and then went into the fire department, which is like military,” he explained. “I like to wear a kind of semi-military looking uniform, but the reality now is I consider myself a peace warrior or a warrior for climate justice for the planet. They’re utility kilts meant for working, not necessarily a traditional tartan.”
Because of his close connection and love of the local area, Rich Nuts has a Malibu office where, Pauwels said, “The Rich Nuts were born because of that rocky steep coastline that we call Malibu—all those mountains we hiked up and down fighting brush fires. I’ve always been a surfer, so I have an affinity for and love Malibu. It was always such a pleasure to work there. The residents always treated us really nice[ly] and took care of us.”
Rich Nuts’ head of culture and co-founder Samantha Coker—also Pauwels fiancée—said Pauwels’ goal with the company is more than just making a buck.
“Richard doesn’t brag about himself, but he really cares about his impact on the planet,” Coker said. “We care about who we buy our products from and we treat them. We care as much about how we engage with the world and model who we are to the world as much as creating a great product. For us, it’s more than just making a great product—it’s about the choices we make. The impact we have and every choice we make as a business is aligned with doing the best we can.”
Pauwels emphasized he is a supporter of regenerative agriculture and its ability “to sequester three to seven times as much carbon per square acre as conventional agriculture.”
Rich Nuts are available locally at Erewhon, Café Gratitude, Sunlife Organics and at RichNuts.com.
“We’re a growing business looking to expand,” the founder said.