Who We Are: For local mom, business is personal

Kathryn Turner
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

Three or four times a week, Bee Nut Free owner and Summit County resident Jo-Anne Tyson works alone in the allergen-free Silverthorne commercial kitchen where she produces her gluten, nut and dairy-free bars, cookies, trail mix and granola. And three or four times a week, she looks around that space and thinks about how she’s in her element.

The just over 1-year-old business, and “the most humbling, fulfilling and touching thing I’ve ever done in my life,” wasn’t a career path Tyson could have pictured for herself when she first stumbled upon Summit County after college. After graduating from Bryant University in Rhode Island, and before making her foray into the real world, Tyson and her college roommate embarked on a two-month cross-country road trip – complete with the comforters off their beds and a 5-gallon bucket of peanut butter (a cheap way to eat, Tyson said). The two ended up crossing through Silverthorne to visit a friend, a location that stuck in her mind after she returned home to Connecticut. Two weeks later, Tyson was making her way back to Summit County.

Tyson met her husband, Dwight, on her very first day as a resident. She walked into the ski rental shop he managed looking for a job. They became fast friends, and after two years started dating. The pair married a few years later in 1994.

“I’m not embarrassed to say I fell head over heels with him,” Tyson said.

Fast-forward to the present, and the duo has two children: Spencer, 13, and Lily, 8. Tyson has held various jobs over the years – including working in revenue accounting at Copper Mountain and in marketing and then the town clerk’s office for the Town of Frisco. She fulfilled a dream of becoming a full-time mother and wife six years ago, a title that in turn led to the creation of Bee Nut Free.

Spencer is allergic to nuts. So allergic, in fact, “that after 30 minutes, he’s dead.” It was discovered when he was 2, and has become something the family has to be vigilant about – constantly checking labels and menus to ensure the contagion is absent, and carrying around EpiPens and jugs of Benadryl.

This is where Bee Nut Free comes in. About 15 months ago, Tyson was with Spencer at the grocery store. Spencer was picking up snacks he wanted, but “literally every product” had a trace of nuts.

“It all came about because of the devastation on his face,” Tyson said.

So Tyson started experimenting at home, tweaking family recipes and using Spencer – and one of his friends with celiac disease, another Bee Nut Free inspiration – as the main taste-testers. Other family and friends got to try every variation of Tyson’s products over the next three months as she perfected her recipes, and after being urged to sell them, began extensive marketing research.

Of course, there was a lot of emailing back and forth to suppliers until she found a few that could guarantee their natural and organic ingredients were also certified nut, gluten and dairy-free.

“I tend to be very spontaneous,” Tyson said. But, once she has an idea, she has a “stick-to-it-iveness,” as she calls it. In other words, she’ll stay with it until she’s blue in the face.

Some of the products Tyson came up with include: a sunflower ginger energy bar, made with gluten-free oats, quinoa, organic applesauce, sunflower seed spread and dried figs; chocolate chip granola bar bites, made with gluten-free oats, quinoa and chocolate chips; a trail mix; a tropical granola bar; “sunny hunny” cookies and a cranberry citrus energy bar.

“I’m proud of my products,” Tyson said. “I like them and I enjoy eating them.”

And it turns out, so do other people. Thrilled but understandably a little nervous, Tyson brought her goodies to the public eye for the first time at the Frisco Town Clean Up Day in 2011, and people were excited. The same went for a natural foods show, and a few athletic events at which she set up shop.

Tyson hears from customers – even those without allergies – that they like the goodies because of their soft texture (gluten-free consumers are subject to some dry and hard creations), and the fact that they’re packed with dried fruits and seeds. Athletes really like them, Tyson said, but most importantly, so do those with food allergies. She gets people who hug her with joy, share their stories of their very bland diets, and let her know that her goodies are making a difference in their lives. Finally, they’re able to snack on something, and something that tastes good at that. One mother recently approached Tyson with her 2-year-old daughter, who was just diagnosed with peanut allergies. She fed her child a small taste of a Bee Nut Free goodie, and waited the allotted 20-minutes to make sure the food was safe. After nothing happened, the mother became overjoyed, telling her child, “honey, you can eat anything on this table.”

“That’s why I’m doing it,” Tyson said. Those are the moments that make Tyson a little emotional.

“It is so overwhelming to me to know that I’m making a difference in someone’s life,” she said. When someone hugs her, “it’s everything in my being to not break down.”

Tyson currently packs up three-to-four cases of her products a week in her Silverthorne commercial kitchen, which she distributes to a few different locations around Summit, a few in Eagle County and, more recently, one in Denver. But she’s looking to expand. She has a few leads, and is hoping to soon make a splash in the Denver and Boulder markets.

“I was laughing the other day because I was throwing darts and hoping for something to stick,” Tyson said. “Now I’m hitting all bull’s-eyes.”

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