Roasted in the shell

Published 10:59 pm Monday, July 21, 2014

Bobby and Faye Beale package peanuts roasted at their West Washington Street store.

Bobby and Faye Beale package peanuts roasted at their West Washington Street store.

Ooh, that smell — it’s peanuts

By Allison T. Williams

You can get a whiff of Suffolk’s history just about any time.

Step outside in downtown Suffolk and breathe in the earthy aroma of fresh, roasting peanuts. That distinctive smell put Suffolk — and Virginia’s — goobers on the map and started the nation’s ongoing love affair with Planters Peanuts, the city’s top employer and taxpayer during its heyday decades ago.

Email newsletter signup

Now owned by Kraft Foods Inc., Planters was founded by Italian immigrants Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi in Pennsylvania in 1906. They moved the company to downtown Suffolk in 1913, an effort to get closer to peanut farmers.

Although there was a time when multiple peanut-roasting companies dotted the downtown’s landscape, Planters is the only remaining large-scale peanut roaster in Suffolk today, according to industry insiders in Suffolk.

Planters Peanuts’ seven massive roasters for processing peanuts — as well as almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts — run from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, said plant manager Lisa Grenier.

Bobby Beale shows off some of the store's product. The store roasts about 90 pounds of peanuts in the shell every day.

Bobby Beale shows off some of the store’s product. The store roasts about 90 pounds of peanuts in the shell every day.

Kraft officials would not say how many tons of nuts are processed in Suffolk annually. But Grenier said the Suffolk factory makes more than a dozen different product packaging lines, including various Planters nuts, trail mix and NUTrition products that are distributed nationwide. Suffolk also roasts nuts that are shipped to a Planters’ plant in Arkansas, she said.

For many people, the smell of roasting peanuts evokes fond memories of home cooking, baseball parks and special times shared with family.

“The smell of roasting peanuts is tantalizing,” said Bobby Beale. He and wife, Faye Beale, manage the Planters Peanut Center on West Washington Street. “There isn’t another smell that compares to it.”

Although the store is decorated with Planters advertising memorabilia and is just blocks away from Planters’ Suffolk factory, the Planters Peanut Center has never been affiliated with Planters or Kraft, he said. The tiny storefront has been serving up hot, roasted peanuts and selling Planters’ products since 1967 and is one of a handful of independently owned Planters stores around the country, he explained.

Every morning, Beale starts off the day roasting about 90 pounds of Virginia jumbo peanuts in the shell. The nuts are purchased from Birdsong Peanuts and are likely produced by growers in Suffolk or neighboring Isle of Wight or Southampton counties, he said.

“We pride ourselves on our fresh products,” said Beale. The barrel-shaped, gas-powered roaster, circa 1936, cooks 22 pounds of peanuts at a time; Beale usually cooks four batches of nuts a day.

The vintage roasters — which are collectible among Planters Peanut buffs — can’t be replaced, Beale said. He has a spare one he uses for parts and in the past, has had a local ironworks company custom-build gears to fit the roaster.

The rich aroma of roasting peanuts is a calling card to customers, he said.

“We have a faithful following of repeat customers, some who come in every day and buy a quarter-pound of nuts,” Beale said.

But the store also has customers from around Hampton Roads and the Peninsula, who want to experience the nostalgic taste — and aroma — of Suffolk’s past.