From wildland firefighting to selling sprouted nuts, this guest’s story is something you don’t hear every day. On today’s show, Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst introduces fellow fireman and entrepreneur, Rich Pauwels, the Founder of the Rich Nuts gourmet sprouted nut business. Having been born in jail, Rich sees his life as a continuous path towards liberation. For 20 years, he did wildland firefighting for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, a tough job that led him to discover the fantastic benefits of sprouted nuts to the human body and the environment. He is passionate about firefighting and his nut business, and a change of perspective has driven him to focus his energies on the latter – providing good food that gives back to the health of the earth. Join in as they talk about regenerative agriculture, wildland firefighting, shifting perspectives, and more.
Listen to the podcast here:
Fighting Fires In The Wild And In Business With Rich Pauwels Of Rich Nuts
I've got a great guest. It's always great to have a brother from the fire service on and then also at the same time have another entrepreneur who came from the fire service and is now putting out fires in his own business. It is great to have you on, Rich Pauwels. How are you doing?
I'm doing well. Thanks for having me on, Rob. I appreciate it.
There's so much backstory behind you. You were a veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and then you started a side business. I want to go back in time because we're going to get to that point. How did you get into the fire service? That's one of those things that everybody always asks a firefighter. How did you want to become a firefighter?
It's fascinating. As a child, I remember going to what we call in California, Show Me’s, which is where you go to the fire station and you visit. A lot of children, especially young boys, have the fantasy of growing up and becoming a fireman, or even young girls too. They had this huge fire engine and they all live there. I thought it was cool. I loved it as a kid, but as an adult, as I was approaching the end of high school and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, a friend introduced me to a firefighter and I was like, “Would you to come on a ride-along and see if it's something you're interested in?”
I was always athletic and did a lot of sports, wrestled, played football, that kind of thing. I was like, “Let's check it out.” I went in for a ride-along and I was amazed at the job. You're physically active all the time, and you're not stuck in an office most of the time. You could go out there and you can make a difference in people's lives that you could see and quantify and be like, “We help that person with the broken leg, heart attack, fire, and different things.” For me, it felt good because I was able to do something that was physical, fun, exciting and also contributed to the good of other people. That's what pushed me into the fire department.
Your story was not one of those straight forward straight lines stories. Why don't you tell the audience where you were born and how that transitioned into going into the Navy reserves right off the bat after high school?
I was born in the Chino Correctional Facility for Women. Unfortunately, my parents were heroin addicts when I was born so I had the pleasure of being born in jail. From there, things got better once I got out. I was never given anything in my life. Everything that I accomplished was all something that I earned on my own. From the beginning all the way through where I am now, going to college, I paid for it. I joined the Navy to help pay for college. I worked the whole time. Everything that came to me was never given to me. It was always I had to earn it.
I'm very much a bootstrapper. I've been on this path to liberation ever since being born in jail. That has propelled me into diving deeper into the self and into the limiting beliefs that continue to keep us small or to continue to keep us restricting ourselves because the reality is we're unlimited beings. If we continue to restrict ourselves with beliefs that were put on us by our parents, school, television, or something like that, this programming starts to restrict who we think we can be and it limits our capacity. My journey has been all about being born in jail and then on a path to liberation.
You talk about engaging in what you're doing. I love it when you talk about loving your work and being a part of your work. That's definitely something that you have to do within the fire service. Where did you learn that from? It's something that doesn't come to somebody to be able to have that deep passion, to be able to not call a work but call it your calling.
The first example of the work I saw was from my father. Luckily, due to my birth, he was able to kick heroin. He kicked the habit and he became a plumber. The thing is, my dad worked all the time. I remember when I was a kid and on the weekends, we would do side jobs together. He would take me out to go work on these plumbing projects like re-pipe a house or unclog a drain or whatever. I learned a lot from him about work, a relationship to work, and what it means to the world. I wouldn't say that he was passionate about being a plumber but he was definitely passionate about doing a good job. He was always like, “You got to do a good job if you want to continue to get callbacks and have more business.” I was always intrigued by that. What I loved about being a firefighter was that you could see it, you could go there, everyone is freaking out, you come in, you calm everyone down, and you handle the situation.
Sometimes, there's a tragedy and sometimes there's not, but you're there to support. People always look to you for that support. In this new business, in those Sprouted Gourmet Nut business, it's a whole fascinating change for me because I'm having to retool myself. I'm not going to say it's been easy but I'm driven by my passion for regenerative agriculture at this point. The thing that my real why in running this business is that I believe that the children of this generation and future generations deserve a better, greener, cleaner, and more just Earth. If we build businesses that are founded on those as their principles, as their driving force, then we can start to reimagine how we connect to nature and start to rebuild the Earth. Regenerative agriculture is an amazing thing that I discovered. It was the first positive news I heard on climate change in years. I can go deeper than that if you'd like.
I’d love to hear more about that.
Regenerative agriculture is like we are living still in the Garden of Eden. We haven't been treating it that way for a long time. If we start to work in harmony with nature, agriculture and restore the soil ecology which is the microbes and the mycorrhizal fungi, they can sequester 3 to 7 times more carbon per square acre and also provide 30% more nutrition in our food. Those two things right there and there's a white paper I read and it said “Within five years, if the entire world converted over to a Regenerative Agriculture System, then we can sequester enough carbon to get back to pre-industrial levels.” We can avert the entire climate crisis without cutting any emissions by shifting the way we do agriculture because the microbes in the soil and the mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with the root structure of the plants. They bring in more minerals, vitamins, and nutrients that make the food more nutritious. At the same time, the plants exude what's called root exudates which is like sugars, carbohydrates, and carbon. It goes into the ground, feeds the microbes and the mycorrhizal fungi, and sequesters it in the ground where it belongs.
It's like a carbon pump into the ground. This is exactly what we needed. They're called plants and they're everywhere. The problem is we've been turning over the Earth which destroys that network. We've been putting a bunch of pesticides which kills those microbes and it destroys that connection. We transform from soil to dirt and dirt isn't very nutritious. We have to put these fossil fuel-based fertilizers in there to get the plants to grow. They look great but they have way less nutrition. When I found out about that and then I had the Sprouted Nut Business, I was like, “If we can convert our business to support regenerative agriculture, I'm going to feel good and it's going to drive my passion for it.” That's what motivates me.
To go from firefighting to an entrepreneur to understand the greater good of your business and the environment is a huge step. How did that all start? It started at the end of your career where you started to have back injury and your body started to break down. Tell us more about how Rich Nuts started.
Rich Nuts solved my own personal digestive issues. Part of the thing was, I was always an athlete and I played football, wrestled, and became a fireman. I was a cheerleader in college too. I had all these injuries and multiple surgeries from tearing my ACL, multiple labrum tears, and all of these ankle surgeries. My body started to break down after twenty years of being a firefighter. Especially out here, I was working in Malibu, which is known for those big brush fires. I was working with a firefighter and paramedics oftentimes we'd be on the side of a cliff trying to pull people out of a car or something that went over the side and we're bringing them up the side of the hill. It's tough on your knee and back.
I started to have these injuries. The nuts business came because when you're fighting a brush fire, you're out away from anywhere where there's any food. I had already started to eat healthy, organic, non-GMO, and all that stuff. When you go out on a brush fire, there's no food there. You have these long shifts, 6, 8, sometimes 10 hours before they even get any food to you. The food that they would come, if they brought you food, would be either prison sack lunches, MREs, or possibly fast food. None of those things were acceptable to me at that point because I had already claimed my food sovereignty and I started eating in a certain way that was very healthy and Paleo mostly. I would bring and eat my own trail mix with me.
That's what would give me the fuel that I needed to fight brush fires. The only problem is the nuts were roasted or raw. I loved raw cashews and that would give me all of these GI problems like gas, bloating, or brain fog. I'm on the side of a hill and I'm not feeling great. I eat something that's supposed to give me energy but suddenly I'm feeling farty and confused. I looked into it because I was trying to figure out what was going on with my GI symptoms. I found out about sprouting. It's like, “If you're eating a lot of nuts and they're not sprouted, you might have symptom X, Y and Z.” I had all three. I was like, “I'm listening.” I started sprouting and I started eating the nuts. You soak the nuts overnight in water, you remove the water the next morning and then you eat them. My GI issue started to go away, which was great. The only problem was they're super moist at that point, so I couldn't put them in a Ziploc and hold them in my pocket for three months until the next brush fire because they would get all moldy.
You have to either refrigerate them because if you refrigerate them, they can stay longer. They're cold and mushy, the texture is just not good. I had this old dehydrator that my dad had given me. I threw the nuts in the dehydrator and that brought back the crunch. That was my first a-ha moment. The second thing was I was like, “These are a little bland.” I threw some Bragg's Liquid Aminos at that time, some sage and rosemary which was growing on the land where I lived in Topanga. While I had the first flavor, we call it Savory Sage, I was like, “These are good.” They’re crunchy and they taste amazing. I would carry them around in a jar and I would share them with friends, family, the guys at work, and they'd be like, “These are amazing. Did you make these?” I was like, “Yes.” They're like, “Can I get some more?” The next thing you know is I’m handing out about 100 pounds a month.
That was the wrong thing to do is have the fireman eat it.
I go, “These are awesome. I love making them for you but I can't afford to keep making them for free, so you are going to have to pay me.” The guys were like, “How much do you want?” I started bagging them. That's how Rich Nuts started.
As an entrepreneur, it's a huge thing to understand that the best products and the best things come from necessity. Wildland firefighting, for those who don't know, is one of the toughest. Structural is hard but a wildland is a totally different animal. I want to get into the nuts part but I also want to get into the wildland. You did it for how many years? Twelve was it?
Los Angeles County has 55 contract cities and all the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles. Some of that is hillsides and mountains. I worked at various stations during my twenty-year career but most of the wildland I did was the twelve years. In the first couple of years, you could get sent out on a brush assignment or something, but it wasn't the primary job because I worked in Inglewood, West Hollywood, and various areas. I would say twelve years is a good assessment of the amount of time I did that.
That's straight work. There are no breaks. You're saying you're out in the middle of nowhere, getting MREs or prison food. The people see it on the TV but they don't understand the hard work that goes into it. Can you tell us the little things that had to correspond when you're out there to be able to make it a successful and essence shift?
When you're on a brush fire, it's like hiking with a backpack. A fire burning below you but smoky and you can't breathe. It starts getting muddy because you're spraying water. You have a hose line with you. It can get challenging. You're sweating constantly and this grueling work could go on for 6, 8, sometimes 10 hours. You're hiking up the side of a mountain. Even if you did have a healthy food there and the whole foods, you don't have time to sit down and eat. That's exactly why the nuts were so perfect for me. You could eat a handful. They're packed with proteins and fats which give you that energy to keep going and not burn out quick on sugars. That was helpful with the sprouted nuts. While I'm firefighting, it's the toughest thing I've ever done. I can't imagine anything tougher. I was in great shape. I worked out, trained, was prepared for it, and I was still getting my tushy kicked all over the place. That's the nature of the beast, I think.
You're saying that there's nothing tougher than wildland firefighting but you were quoted by saying that going into selling and becoming this new entrepreneur with no experience, that scared you more than going into a fire.
That's true. Being an entrepreneur is much scarier than being a fireman. It might be hard for people to understand it. I'm speaking for myself, I can't speak for everyone but from my experience, going into a fire was exciting and very exhilarating. One of the magic things that I have and this is one of the keys to unlocking that prison door because I feel like we’re all in a cage. As we start to liberate ourselves and become more fully who we are, one of the keys to that is being able to shift your perspective and to see things as for you. If you can shift your perspective like for instance, I knew that going into a fire was exciting and exhilarating so I was down to do it. I would get jacked up, “Let's go, let’s fight a fire.”
Most of the guys are, in a way, it’s exhilarating. When I looked at becoming an entrepreneur, selling a product, and running a business where I had no skills or anything, it was scary to me. I thought, “If I can shift my perspective from seeing this as scary because it's too exciting.” The energy that comes up in your body that not in the pit of your stomach, that's a little bit of anxiety, what is that? It's something that you feel but then you put your interpretation on this. Is this scary or is this exhilarating? It's all a matter of what slant or perspective you put on it. If you can start to work with what perspective you choose because it is a choice. Oftentimes they're choosing it subconsciously because of our programming. For me, making that transition from this is scary to this is exciting, everything started flowing to me instead of me being afraid and causing all these difficulties. It has been challenging for sure to switch at middle age from a twenty-year career of being a firefighter and paramedic to running a company. There's a lot of learning opportunities.
It hasn't been easy at all. It’s challenging for me was at the same time, physically, I was going down and I had always relied on my body. I knew that it could get me through anything because I was an athlete. I felt a sense of confidence and I have put so much time and energy into training and working out, making sure that I was fit, strong, and athletic. That gave me a sense of confidence and it was tied into my masculinity. As that started to fade away, who am I without that? That was a question that started to emerge for me. One time it took me five minutes to get out of bed to go to the bathroom to go pee. I was like, “This is depressing. I went from superhero to an invalid.” That was challenging for me mentally and emotionally, to be honest.
I can imagine. It is a transition. It's a transition from being that young firefighter to now being that old guy. It's exhausting.
You have to think of it as long-term. Being a fireman is a young man's game.
You transitioned to something great because I love how you put it into words that food is about nourishing your body. It's about nourishing the land and the farmers who grow it. I love the four goals that you have in mind when you created Rich Nuts. It had to be something that was nutritious, sustaining, delicious, and good for the planet. You can go to RichNuts.com. Your blog is absolutely priceless. You can see a great picture of this guy wearing a kilt. Tell me more about the kilt-wearing while you're selling.
I started wearing kilts at Burning Man because it's hot and oftentimes you’re working on projects so you need the mobility. I found shorts to start to get hot. When I wear a kilt, I feel free and liberated. I like that feeling of being able to move without restriction. They're fun. I have a little bit of Scottish on my mother's side, so I figured why not? The ones that I wear are not traditional Tartans. They're more a utility kilt is what’s it called. You should try it. I'm all about liberating myself. When people ask me why I'm wearing a kilt, I said, “Because I sell nuts.”
You should make some Rich Nuts kilts and sell those. That'd be perfect.
That might be a good idea.
You said, Burning Man. I want to go back to the marketing story that you told me. When you first started selling Rich Nuts, you're selling them there and you had this sign. Tell me more about that because that was a great marketing story.
That was at Lightning in a Bottle, which is another festival. Similar to Burning Man except that it is more commercial where you can retail or sell a product. It was fun. I gave a talk on how to make sprouted nut milk. They have this stage where it's called The Learning Kitchen. At The Learning Kitchen, there are all different types of food classes. One could be Have Fun with Curry, Making Chocolate. I taught Sprouted Nut Milk: Nectar of the Gods. I call the class Sprouted Nut NOG: Nectar of the Gods. While I was there, I noticed that it's mostly a Millennial crowd so it's music. It's like Coachella but it's a little bit more artsy than that. They had created these things called totems which are basically a stick that they would carry around.
They would have some lighted whatever. It could be a jellyfish, a bunny rabbit, a carrot, it could be anything that they would create. Each one of them was unique, and they might be 6 to 10 feet tall. They're all varied because people are making them. It was a great idea because if you go to one of these festivals, there are 20,000 people there and you go to the big stage with 10,000 people. If you go to the bathroom and you come back, you may not ever find your friends again. The phones are not working because they're overloaded systems. They had all these totems and I saw them, I was like, “I wonder if I could create a game that would engage Millennials.” I created this game called Get Rich Nuts and I built this totem which was a dream catcher.
In the totem, I wrote Get Rich Nuts and LED light up. It's called EL wire. It lights up. It was flashing Get Rich Nuts, the dream catcher. Whenever some of them would find me with that because it was twelve feet tall, so it's up above the crowd. They would come up to me and be like, “Are you Rich?” I was like, “Yes, I'm Rich.” I'd give them a free bag of nuts if they'd win the contest and then I would get them to write a Wish for Peace on a wooden feather that I had laser cut and we would hang it in the dream catcher. I'd have all these wishes. It was moving because it was such a paradigm-shifting game because it was a win-win game. For me, I won this personal moment with someone where they shared something about connection with someone. Whatever their wish for peace was, it was usually very personal and emotional. That was awesome for me personally. As a brand, we won some content to share on our Instagram social media channels, and then whoever the winner was, they would win a bag of nuts. It was amazing and super fun. That festival is great. It was canceled, so I did a digital version.
I was going to say it's a little harder to do a digital Where's Waldo?
We're working on a way where anyone who finds me now, I'll do the same thing but it's not the same because everyone is locked up.
Rich, thanks so much for telling us your story and telling us more. You can go to RichNuts.com. I highly advise going there and getting some nuts as well as reading the blog because it's a great blog. I always end the show the same way. I have three questions for you and then we have a rapid round. You don't get the questions ahead of time because I want the good answers. Here's the first one. What is one thing you haven't done but is outside of your comfort zone?
I don't know if you're familiar with Wim Hof. Do you know who Wim Hof is?
He has this ten-day retreat in Poland and you go there and you do the Wim Hof breathwork technique and get comfortable being in the freezing cold water. At the end of it, you hike up this mountain called Mount Przesieka in Poland. I don't know how many days the hike. It's a 1 or 2-day hike, up and down this mountain in your shorts in the snow. It’s hardcore. It's amazing. I want to do that. That's one thing I haven't done that I want to do. It's definitely outside of my comfort zone.
That's outside a lot of our comfort zones.
It’s all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What is your favorite quote and why?
I have two, but let's do the Henry Ford. His quote is “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.” That's like, “Whatever you believe, your mindset, your perspective, whatever that is, that’s you're going to get, so choose wisely.” It harkens back to what I mentioned earlier.
That's a powerful quote and a lot of meaning behind it.
It’s simple but true.
Last question here. This is going to be easy for you. If you could have coffee with three other people, they can be living or dead, at a firehouse table. You know nothing is off the table when you talk at a firehouse table. Who would it be and why?
I also have a deep spiritual practice. I didn't mention too much. I do this meditation technique called Kriya yoga. It's pranayama breathwork, it comes from India. The guru of the whole technique is Babaji. I would definitely like to have Babaji there. I would do Babaji, Jesus and Buddha. I’m going to picture the three of them and see if we can get on the same page with some of the religious struggles and conflicts throughout the world. It'd be nice if we could all get on the same page.
That's a fantastic group right there. We're onto the rapid round. I'm going to give you two things. All you’ve got to do is tell me one of them. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald’s or Taco Bell.
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleeping late or wake up early?
Wake up early.
Run or walk?
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Fire or water?
Fire, for sure.
Use a porta-potty or drive or run to the next physical bathroom?
Use a porta-potty.
Coke or Pepsi?
I guess Coke. I haven't had them in a long time.
Go big or go home?
Rich, thanks so much for joining us. You can go to RichNuts.com to find out more and to get a bag of nuts for yourself. Rich, thanks again for coming on.
Thanks for having me, Rob. I appreciate it. It's good chatting with you.
We will talk to all of you next time. Thanks for joining us.