Obsessed with Flavor: Q's Nuts Words by Shannon Mullen/Photographs by Kristin Teig

It started with a simple mission: figure out a recipe to make sweet-roasted nuts taste as good as they smell. “It probably took about 100 pounds of peanuts,” says Brian Quinn, or “Q” as his employees and customers know him at Q’s Nuts in Somerville.

Twelve years ago Q and his wife Beth were looking for a way to supplement their income; they were both working full-time for other people but Q had always dreamed of owning his own business, and he loved to cook. The idea to combine the two came from watching food vendors at a flea market on the North Shore. “We used to sell old books, refinished furniture, pottery, whatever we could find,” says Beth. “I remember unpacking and repacking and watching the food vendor there, and we thought, okay, food is where it’s at.”

The pair loved buying nuts from roasters in Boston’s Downtown Crossing area so they spent a day watching one vendor who didn’t speak English but showed them his technique. When they perfected their own recipe they built a roasting cart and booked their first event—the Ipswich 4th of July celebration at Castle Hill. “I remember being really excited that we made a couple hundred dollars,” Beth says. “We were so pumped that people responded. Now we’re pumping out a couple 100 pounds of nuts a day. It’s incredible how much it’s grown.”

The couple just opened their first storefront in Somerville a few blocks from Davis Square in a cozy space previously occupied by a corner convenience store. When you walk into the shop you are hit with smells, spicy and a little sweet, and bowls of samples abound. Most days Q can be found experimenting with new flavors in the kitchen area behind the counter. “I’m getting better,” he says with a warm, slightly mischievous laugh. “Used to be I’d get it one out of every three batches. Now if I get bored I just throw something into a pot, and it’s fun more than anything else.”

Q’s favorite flavor is Sweet and Sassy (cayenne, habanero, cane sugar and a touch of garlic) and Beth loves the Key Lime Ginger she concocted years ago. “That’s the rewarding part,” she says. “We just came up with an Autumn Roast and people are going crazy for it. They get obsessed with flavors and have to have them.”

The Chocolate Coconut is another bestseller and there’s always the original cinnamon-vanilla Sweet Roast. Exotic flavors include Mexican Chocolate, Cayenne Mango, Rosemary Sea-Salted, Banana Foster, and whatever Q might happen to be roasting on a given day. When I stopped by the shop he gave me samples of a chocolate lavender almond he’d recently perfected.

The company’s process always starts with raw nuts, which are roasted in small batches with the other ingredients. Sweet roasts are made with evaporated cane sugar, which sets the Quinns’ final product apart. The result is fresh and super-crunchy with a natural flavor that’s not too sweet or spicy—a delicious and distinctive balance that left me wanting more instead of wishing I’d stopped at half the bag.

Beth and Q source as many of their ingredients as possible from local vendors. They buy nuts from American Nut & Cashew in Boston, spices from Christina’s in Cambridge and chocolate from Taza in Somerville. “Keeping it local is morally right,” Beth says. “I just think that’s important in terms of fossil fuels and local businesses helping each other out, as well as having that personal relationship with whoever’s supplying you with your materials.”

The couple says family is another key element in their business model. Beth and Q are high school sweethearts who wanted to start a company where their two children could work alongside them. “It was important to teach them by example how hard you have to work to earn a living,” says Beth.

The kids are grown now but Q says their daughter is thinking of getting more involved. She already does photography for the company’s website and her boyfriend works in the Somerville store part-time. “I tell her if it doesn’t work out between them, he stays and you go,” Q says with that trademark cackle. His nephew also works with them, and the company has a few other part-time employees but Beth and Q do most of the roasting.

“When we started I had no idea this would be a full-time venture,” Beth says. “The business is like having another child—it dictates your schedule, and you can’t believe the hours. I’m no stranger to hard work but it’s mind-blowing, the hours you have to put in. But you also call the shots, and you’re not working for someone else who might be making decisions you don’t agree with.“

The company is doing well enough now that Beth was recently able to stop working part-time at a restaurant. Q says they’re branching out with a few new products like bagged granola and he’s working on granola bars and trail mixes. “There’s a lot I haven’t tried,” he says, grinning. “I have macadamia nuts but I haven’t done anything with them yet. The perfect roast will pop into my head one night. I have a feeling it will have something to do with chocolate.”

Q’s Nuts 349 Highland Avenue Somerville 617.764-3741 qsnuts.com

Shannon Mullen is a film producer and freelance public radio reporter whose work airs regularly on Marketplace, All Things Considered and other national programs. Her culinary experience includes stints as chef aboard a 1929 wooden motoryacht based in Newport, RI, and as garde manger in the kitchen of a French bistro in Portsmouth, NH.