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Self-made magnate gives up accounting, goes nuts, gets new Mission©, and rediscovers joy

With the economy sinking toward the Great Recession in 2008 and a baby on the way, Ted Calabrese quit his secure accounting job to start selling individually bagged nuts out of his Camry.

You read that correctly. Entrepreneurs truly are prone to nuttiness…

Calabrese had worked a 9 to 5 job doing accounting at a headhunting firm. Before that, it was government contracting. The money was decent, but the monotony was ever-present, and happiness was – at best – elusive.

So he threw caution to the wind, dumped the cushy accounting job, and plunged himself into a situation where failure truly was not an option. Teddy began looking for a venture with a small learning curve, something he could launch under his own steam. His initial thought was vending machines, until a good friend in the grocery industry pointed to a more intriguing possibility: Direct Store Delivery.

Calabrese began purchasing pallets of salted nuts and candy, shipping and storing them in a warehouse owned by his in-laws for their electrical contracting business. Every morning – at the ungodly hour of 3 or 4 am, he would drive to the warehouse, load up his Camry, and hit the open road. Gas stations, convenience stores, and other mom and pop outfits that dabbled in snack displays were his bread and butter, and each bag of nuts bore a 23 cent profit.  Sales from the first pallet – 1,920 bags of nuts –tallied just over $400.

Not long after the birth of his daughter, Teddy’s company officially opened its (car) doors. It was April 15, 2008 – a day that accountants everywhere drink dozens of cups of coffee and generally hate their jobs -  and the entire United States economy was crumbling like so many peanut shells under a wrecking ball. But failure was not an option. It wasn’t even a concept.

Working 80 hours a week to avoid working 40? Calabrese was the salt-soliciting embodiment of that quote by “Queen of QVC” and “Shark Tank” guru Lori Greiner. He was the King of Cashews, and business was booming.

Four months in, Calabrese upped the risk-taking ante and bought a Mission Foods route for 60-grand and earned the unique distinction of being the first operator in the Mid-Atlantic. The brand, which specializes in tortilla and tortilla-related products, subsequently exploded. By the end of that year, his tortilla and salsa supply had expanded to two routes. Today, he oversees three, with a presence in more than 500 chain stores, and Cinco de Mayo is one of his favorite days of the year.

The Direct Store Delivery model has been good to Chesapeake Distributing, LLC., which in addition to Calabrese includes three drivers who work on 100% commission. Their day begins with trucks filled to the brim with jerky, popcorn, and cashews, as well as their Mission Foods products, which they attempt to empty before the close of business. These distributors handle the merchandising, which frees retailers from the need to staff products.

From $400 for that first pallet to more than $1 million in annual sales, Calabrese is living the American dream, all because he sought more flavor in life and walked that fine line between risk-taking and sheer lunacy that characterizes true entrepreneurs who are compelled to do their own thing, at all costs.

And here’s an intoxicating side note: By 2010, Calabrese had obtained a wholesale permit for the sale of beer, wine, and liquor. Within four years, he had secured 1,200 accounts, with a strong focus on craft brews. The Baltimore-area Budweiser Distributors took notice, and in October 2014, purchased that side of Teddy’s burgeoning empire.

A shame; beer goes great with nuts.

But entrepreneurial success tastes even better.

- Duane Carey, President