Nielsen-Massey Vanilla: A Family-Owned Business That’s Been Committed to Flavor and Focused on Customer Needs Since 1907
Updated: 3.26.18 Entrepreneurial Success

Nielsen-Massey Vanilla: A Family-Owned Business That’s Been Committed to Flavor and Focused on Customer Needs Since 1907

By: Jon McDonald

The Crunch: Nielsen-Massey is best known for its high-quality, ethically sourced vanilla extracts. After a chance run-in with Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma, the Nielsen-Massey brand expanded its operation from a small footprint to an international market. Still, after enormous growth, Nielsen-Massey continues to follow the principles that made it what it is today. The company fosters sustainable growing practices with vanilla bean farmers in Madagascar and uses a strict and thorough extraction process to ensure complex flavor in every product. Ultimately, Nielsen-Massey focuses on the needs of its discerning clients, who are loyal to the company because of its consistent quality and conscientious practices.

Nielsen-Massey wasn’t always the international vanilla-producing powerhouse it is today. In 1979, Chatfield Nielsen Jr. decided the 70-year-old company would continue its singular focus on vanilla flavor production, rather than branch out into multiple varieties of food flavorings.

That narrow focus meant shifting more heavily to vanilla production, and a year later, in 1980, the company was bottling its vanillas on a very small scale.

“At the time, we didn’t have a retail line, we were just filling bottles at home in our kitchen,” says Craig Nielsen, the company’s Vice President of Sustainability and, along with his brother and sister, a third-generation owner and manager. “My mother, Camilla, would bottle at the kitchen table and hand label the same way — one at a time. It was quite a tedious job.”

Photo of Craig Nielsen, Nielsen-Massey Vice President of Sustainability

Craig Nielsen, Vice President of Sustainability, runs Nielsen-Massey along with his siblings Beth and Matt.

Despite its limited production, the company’s vanillas still garnered plenty of recognition. Chuck Williams— of Williams-Sonoma catalog and stores — came to Illinois, where Nielsen-Massey is based, in search of the best gourmet food products to sell to customers nationwide. He tasted the vanilla while visiting a cooking school that used Nielsen-Massey vanilla.

“Chuck tried the vanilla and liked the flavor so much that he asked the professor of the school where she got it from — and bought some,” Craig said.

Chuck liked Nielsen-Massey’s vanilla so much he wanted to start selling the product — 100,000 bottles to be exact. That was, of course, far more than the Nielsens could produce.

“My father asked if he could have 24 hours to figure it out,” Chuck said. “He went to my mother, and her immediate response was, ‘Yes, great idea.’ But, she said, ‘You have to find another way to bottle — I’m not filling all those bottles on our kitchen table at night!’ ”

The encounter with Chuck proved fortuitous and encouraged Nielsen-Massey to enter a much larger retail market. By the following year, the company found a way to ramp up its production enough to be included in the Williams-Sonoma catalog and stores — while still producing the same high-quality product.

“Williams-Sonoma was our first retail account and introduced our products to its catalog and stores, helping us to gain consumer awareness,” Craig said. “After that, the retail products boomed, and we are still a purveyor for Williams-Sonoma to this day.”

Building a Flavorful Family Legacy For Over a Century

While Nielsen-Massey remained a small-batch vanilla producer until 1981, the Massey brand has existed for over 100 years.

In 1907, Richard Massey and Dr. Otis Klein started a business creating aromas to mask the scents of cleaning chemicals. Over the next 10 years, Richard left his partnership with Otis and changed the focus of the business to food flavoring production. In 1917, Richard employed Chatfield Nielsen Sr., who rose through the ranks to become a shareholder by the late 1920s.

By 1950, the Nielsen family owned the company. But it wasn’t until 1963 that the name was changed to its current iteration: Nielsen-Massey.

Photo of Nielsen-Massey before Nielsen's name was added

Before Chatfield Nielsen Sr. worked his way up in the company, it was called Massey’s.

“In the same year, my father, Chatfield John Nielsen Jr., joined the company,” Craig said. “He was known by the employees for his strong work ethic and his expansive knowledge of the vanilla manufacturing process.”

More than a decade later, Chatfield bought the company from his father, with the aim of shifting the focus from producing all types of food flavorings to to making only pure vanilla products. That same year, Chatfield’s wife, Camila, began working with her husband.

When he died in 1992, Camila took over the business and grew its footprint. In addition to introducing new products like Pure Vanilla Powder and Pure Vanilla Bean Paste, she also expanded the company’s reach by opening an international production plant in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.

Today, the third generation of Nielsens has taken over operations. Along with Craig, his sister Beth is Vice President of Culinary, and his brother Matt is Vice President of Operations.

Producing Organic and Fair-Trade Products Before They Were Trendy

Nielsen-Massey grew rapidly thanks to the company’s focus on creating the best tasting vanilla flavorings in the world. Notably, the company used organic and fair-trade ingredients in its products long before they were popular.

“While ‘pure, natural, and high-quality ingredients’ is the consumer mantra today, it has been our company mantra for decades,” Craig said. “It wasn’t motivated by requests or trends — it’s something we do because it’s the right thing to do.”

The company recognizes that the best way to create consistently tasty food is to establish sustainable farming methods for vanilla plants. Further, the company is interested in making the industry more sustainable by promoting better practices — like only harvesting the vanilla beans when they are fully grown.

Nielsen-Massey sustainability focus in growing process

“We try to be pillars of pure and natural products,” Craig said. “Another example is our commitment to GMO-free products. While it’s the number one consumer request today, our products have been that way for many years.”

As one of the first companies to create partnerships with vanilla growers in Madagascar, Nielsen-Massey has long been concerned with stabilizing the lives of its farmers — many of whom once lived in poverty — by paying them fairly for their harvests. The company even received Fairtrade Certification, which guarantees businesses pay producers a minimum price and premium.

Catering Products for Scrupulous, Quality-Oriented Clients

Despite a growing cadre of home cooks clamoring for their vanillas, many of Nielsen-Massey’s primary clients are professionals.

“We supply chefs, ice cream manufacturers, large industrial accounts, and more,” Craig said. “They know they’re going to get the same flavor every time they use our products. That’s really what has built our brand loyalty and why people seek us out.”

Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanillas are created through a rigorous process. First, the best vanilla beans are chosen to be put through cold-extraction, which slowly draws out the 300 flavor compounds found in the beans. The process is time-consuming; it takes three to five weeks because Nielsen-Massey does not use heat or pressure, processes that are not ideal for the beans.

“We believe, to create great-tasting food, you need to have the best ingredients,” Craig said. “That’s why our family business is committed to sustaining the plants, people, and communities that supply our ingredients — because our interests are inseparable.”

Photo of Nielsen-Massey vanilla products

Nielsen-Massey has also expanded its product offerings to cater to the diverse needs of its clients. The company’s pure flavor extracts, like Pure Lemon and Pure Almond, are botanicals infused into an alcohol base. As with Pure Vanilla, these extracts are designed to be used for cooking or baking.

Other vanilla products — besides extracts — include vanilla-flavored sugars, whole vanilla beans for baking or desserts, and vanilla pastes that can be stirred into batters or used to spice up ice creams.

Nielsen-Massey now feels comfortable moving beyond only selling vanilla extract because it wants to cater to customer needs.

“We are always listening to what chefs want,” Craig said. “Our market research comes from our extensive chef network and long-term relationships and is the impetus for the creation of many of our products.”

A Dedication to Foundational Principles in a Changing World

Since it started focusing on vanilla extracts in 1980, Nielsen-Massey has created some of the tastiest vanilla products in the world — without cutting corners. And since being catapulted into the popularity by one order from Williams-Sonoma, the company hasn’t looked back.

While its vanilla bean extraction process might take longer and its sustainability practices might be more time consuming, Nielsen-Massey believes that they create the most optimal product while satisfying the company’s social responsibility.

“As we have grown over the years and brought in a management team from outside the company, the principles we started with haven’t been altered a bit — we still focus on pure, quality, natural products,” Craig said.