Juan Morales, the friendly, vivacious owner of the healthy snack company Naughty Fruit, prizes the Teton community above everything else.
A long time vendor at the markets in Jackson, he intensely misses working the booth with his family, selling tamales and mangoneadas, talking to customers, giving hugs, trading products with other vendors, and handing out samples of his signature spiced dried fruit. While he awaits the return of Morales Homemade/Rosa’s Tamales to the Jackson farmers market (the People’s Market is not allowing prepared food this year because of coronavirus), his hands are full with Naughty Fruit.
Morales was in the midst of scaling up his operation this winter. He had moved from his old spot behind Suba in Victor into the Driggs Industrial Building north of town, taking the space that 22 Designs had recently vacated, and had installed a big dehydrator to up his production. He was working to start selling Naughty Fruit to a regional distributor, but that required new packaging and a big increase in output.
Then COVID hit and made a big dent in snack sales. Much of the product was going to hospitality outfits in Jackson and that business immediately dried up. Even some local grocery stores temporarily stopped ordering, Morales said.
Undaunted by the slowdown, Morales is working with local photographers and videographers to launch a Kickstarter campaign later this summer. He’s aiming to crowd fund enough (between $30,000 and $35,000) to order biodegradable packaging for each flavor and a fruit cutter to speed up the process he currently does by hand.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “You can’t wait for things to happen, you have to go out and make them happen.”
As he builds the Naughty Fruit brand, Morales envisions offering seasonal fruit snacks grown within a 500-mile radius—peaches from Colorado as well as the apples and pears he sources from the Boise area, to add to the tropical fruits from Mexico and Costa Rica he sells year round. He’s going to New Mexico soon to meet with farmers there who grow a dizzying variety of chili peppers, in hopes of making his spice blend even more nuanced and flavorful.
Morales said he benefits from the mentorship of several other entrepreneurs in Teton Valley and Jackson, particularly Kate Schade of the successful energy bar company Kate’s Real Food.
“Every time I have a question or need to know something without having gone through it, I go pick her brain. Her knowledge is worth more than gold. I admire the hustlers, the grinders here,” he said fondly.
He views other valley people in the food business with affection and admiration as well. “Our neighbors are growing food, making cheese, baking bread, it’s amazing,” he said. “I always try to spend money locally where people are all neighbors and friends.”
In order to foster future entrepreneurs in the same way he got his start, Morales is working with the City of Driggs and Rob Dupré to convert parts of the Naughty Fruit space and the Chasing Paradise space next door into a rentable commercial kitchen using equipment that was once installed in the city’s culinary incubator next to the law enforcement center. (Contact Doug Self at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on commercial kitchen rental.)
“It’s been such a learning experience, having my own business here in paradise,” Morales said. “I enjoy what we do, being part of stimulating the local economy while redefining snacking to be more healthy and flavorful, and providing work and skills for young employees.”
He’s still dreaming up all the rewards for people who donate to the Kickstarter, but some ideas include salsa lessons, catered meals, gifts from other local businesses, and, of course, plenty of Naughty Fruit.
“I may not have all the answers and I cross every bridge as I get to it, but I’ve lost my fear of the unknown and I welcome all challenges,” Morales said.