A brief history of nuts

Published 11:33 pm Friday, July 19, 2013

Suffolk prepares to celebrate Planters’ 100th anniversary

Bankers thought he was convincing. Stockholders thought he was crazy. Competitors thought he was bold and rash.

But the bottom line was that Amedeo Obici was just plain nuts.

Just 11 years old when he arrived in New York from Oderzo, Italy, on March 17, 1889, young Amedeo marveled at the fact that folks took off work and had a parade on a regular Monday, until he learned about an Irish holiday called St. Patrick’s Day.

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The son of an Italian saddlemaker who had died when Amedeo was 7, Amedeo and his three younger siblings were sent away after the death so their mother could make a living as a housekeeper. Amedeo at first boarded and apprenticed with a tinsmith and worked his way up from a sweeper to a waterspout-painter.

Amedeo and Louise Obici

Amedeo and Louise Obici

Then his maternal uncle, Vittorio Sartor, who lived in Scranton, Pa., far away in the United States, offered to send for his nephew.

That started a string of events that led to, not two decades later, the Planters Peanut empire being set up in Suffolk in 1913. A century later, Amedeo’s adopted city in his adopted country prepares to celebrate 100 years of the company’s continuous presence.

“Our Kraft Suffolk team is very excited about our plant’s centennial,” Kraft Suffolk Plant Manager Dan Huss said. “We have a great heritage here in Suffolk, and it goes hand in hand with the wonderful history of our Planters brand.”

After arriving at his uncle’s home in Pennsylvania, Amedeo quickly began his enterprising pursuits, according to a Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society booklet, “Strictly for Peanuts,” published in 2005 and compiled from two biographies of Obici written in the 1940s by Ludovico Caminita Sr. and Ludwig Caminita Jr.

It didn’t take long for Amedeo to find a job in a Scranton cigar factory for 80 cents a week. But after about a year, the 12-year-old answered the call of adventure to nearby Wilkes-Barre.

He was barely there an hour when he passed a fruit vendor’s stand just as an apple fell. He handed it back to the proprietor and answered the “thank you” with “you’re quite welcome” — in Italian.

The surprised fruit vendor, Giovanni Frutta, hired him on the spot upon learning the lad was looking for work. Amedeo stored his suitcase under the stand and started work on the spot.

At the fruit stand, Amedeo learned the concepts of marketing long before they were ever taught to anyone. He learned them by process of elimination, watching sales go up and down when he moved different fruits to different locations on the stand, piled them differently and polished them or didn’t polish them.

The stand was located in front of a saloon, and the boy soon had a job as a helper, which led to a promotion as bartender. But he dreamed of bigger and better things.

He opened his own fruit stand, but the fruit soon became a sideline business to the peanuts sold at the stand. The stand was sold when he opened a restaurant that specialized in oyster stew — and peanuts.

He soon bought the building on a $39,000 loan, which drew snickers from the other local businessmen. Never minding them, Obici installed several peanut-roasting machines on the second floor of his new building, with the third floor used for storage.

He went into business with a friend, Mario Peruzzi, who would later marry Obici’s sister Elisabetta. Peruzzi sold peanuts to grocers and handled the books, and Obici was the proprietor, manager and producer.

Obici continued to keep the company on the cutting edge of innovation. He started putting letters of the alphabet into each bag of peanuts, and giving free peanuts — later free $1 Ingersoll watches — to anyone who collected the letters O-B-I-C-I. He revolutionized the machinery industry by demanding, and receiving, machines that shelled, skinned, roasted and sorted peanuts.

Some businessmen were still snickering, but others took notice — including some in Suffolk.

Obici began to notice that when he arrived in the Suffolk area to purchase peanuts at the cleaning houses, prices mysteriously went up. He was upsetting a small clique of manufacturers that had once dominated the peanut industry, and he had only one idea of how to remedy the problem.

So Obici borrowed $100,000 from a Suffolk bank to move the operation south.

As they say, the rest is history.

Mr. Peanut, still the company’s mascot, was born in Suffolk when Obici hosted a contest to come up with a symbol for the company. Suffolk schoolboy Antonio Gentile drew an anthropomorphized peanut with arms and legs. Not only did he win the prize, but Obici took a liking to the boy and paid his way through college and medical school.

The original factory was on East Washington Street and expanded greatly throughout the years, according to a timeline provided by Kraft, which now owns the brand. In 1960, Standard Brands acquired the vast majority of Planters stock, and in 1961, the two companies merged.

In 1994, Planters’ new $35 million nut-processing plant began production after a ribbon-cutting ceremony in which Mr. Peanut performed the honors.

The original plant was demolished the next year, and Planters donated the land to be used as an industrial park. In 2005, a 57,000-square-foot warehouse addition was added at Culloden Street.

In celebration of the impact young Amedeo’s vision has had on Suffolk, a number of events will take place this fall to recognize the 100th anniversary of Planters’ presence in Suffolk.

From Sept. 14 to Nov. 2, a special showing of Mr. Peanut memorabilia and collectibles will take place at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

Planters employees will participate in a community beautification of the Tynes Street Park on Sept. 30.

On Oct. 2, the Nutmobile and Mr. Peanut will visit Suffolk, along with peanut samples, photo opportunities with Mr. Peanut, children’s activities and games.

On Oct. 5, the Peanut Fest Parade will take place with Mr. Peanut as the grand marshal. Peanut Fest lasts from Oct. 10-13.

The Peanut Pals fall conference will take place in the city Oct. 19-20. Peanut Pals is an organization dedicated to people who collect Planters Peanuts memorabilia.