After 100 years, Planters’ influence has faded as Suffolk has boomed
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After 100 years, Planters’ influence has faded as Suffolk has boomed

Mar 13, 2023


The Virginian-Pilot

SUFFOLK – In 1994, when Planters opened a $35 million plant to replace its aging factory, city officials were thrilled.

"Planters has been synonymous with Suffolk longer than we’ve all been alive," Mayor S. Chris Jones, now a state delegate, said at the ribbon-cutting.

Today, Planters, which turns 100 this year, is no longer the city's top employer or taxpayer, distinctions it held for decades. With about 350 full-time workers, it ranks 11th, behind Suffolk Public Schools and city government, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Sentara Obici Hospital and businesses such as QVC, Wal-Mart and Ciba Specialty Chemicals.

It's not that Planters is faltering. Far from it. The 42-acre Suffolk factory churns out about half of all Planters products: peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, filberts, and trail mixes with dried fruit and chocolate for grocery and convenience stores. The other Planters factory, in Fort Smith, Ark., produces the rest.

Planters, owned by Kraft Foods Inc., is one of the food and beverage giant's 50 brands with annual revenues of more than $100 million, Kraft spokeswoman Cathy Pernu said.

Over the years, though, corporate mergers – Kraft acquired Planters in 2000 – technological advances that reduced its labor force, the decline of the local peanut industry and booming growth in Suffolk have diluted the company's influence .

While Planters is widely seen as a solid, if somewhat distant, corporate citizen, Suffolkians remember when it was much more.

"When I was mayor, I could walk into Planters headquarters and say, ‘I need some samples to distribute to friends at a regional meeting,’ and I would get it. That wouldn't happen today," said Andy Damiani, a downtown businessman who was mayor from 1982 to 1986. "Planters in those days was family. Today, it's not."

Like two old friends who have drifted apart, Suffolk and Planters always will have a bond. Generations of families labored at the plant, earning money for mortgages and their children's college tuition.

Company founder Amedeo Obici, who has achieved mythic status in Suffolk for his benevolence and rags-to-riches story, left millions in his will to build the city's hospital, which opened in 1951.

Yet today's bond between Suffolk and Planters is based largely on nostalgia.

Suffolk is no longer Peanut City. That's an antiquated identity city officials, without offending anyone, are quietly trying to shed.

Suffolk Mayor Bobby Ralph mentioned computer "modeling and simulation" eight times during his recent State of the City address. He never said "peanuts."

"Yeah, we want to be known as Sim City," said Lynette White, the city's tourism director, referring to the nickname officials are cultivating for the high-tech corridor in northern Suffolk. "That's sexy nowadays. Peanuts aren't as sexy as they were 100 years ago."

And they were sexy. In October 1941, young women donned peanut-shell swimsuits to stir up publicity for the first major peanut festival. The festival, parade and industry-boosting event was said to have attracted 40,000 to 50,000 people to Suffolk, more than the entire population of Suffolk and Nansemond County, which had about 30,000 people then.

The governors of Virginia and North Carolina came. A former Miss America was crowned Peanut Queen. After a day's festivities, Obici took dignitaries for a dinner cruise on the Nansemond River on his 105-foot yacht.

It was a heady time in the peanut boomtown. Peanuts were the dominant cash crop. They were grown, harvested, sorted, stripped of their shells and skin, salted, vacuum-packed, covered in chocolate and pressed into oil and peanut butter. The city was loaded with peanut operations – farmers, pickers, shellers and processors.

A Suffolk radio station, on the air until the mid-1990s, had the call letters WLPM – World's Largest Peanut Market. At football games, Suffolk High School cheerleaders used to chant: "I’m peanut bred and peanut fed, and when I die, I’ll be peanut dead."

At the top of the peanut pyramid was Planters Nut & Chocolate Co.

"As you got old enough, when you came out of school, if you weren't going to college, you went to Planters," said Mary Steward, 76 , who worked there from 1956 to 1992 as a peanut sorter and later as a machine cleaner .

"I sent two children to college working for Planters, paid for my home working for Planters. Planters took care of us. A lot of homes were bought. People bought cars and educated their children, and then some of their children went to work there. That was my life there. "

Obici founded the company in 1906 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and moved it to Suffolk in 1913 to be closer to the peanut fields.

It was a gamble. Obici, an Italian immigrant moving to the South in 1913, was said to have had trouble finding a bank to lend him money. Eventually, he got a loan and started building what, after three expansions, became a mammoth eight-story plant in downtown Suffolk.

Through technological innovations and savvy marketing Obici built a peanut empire in Suffolk that quickly became the city's largest employer and taxpayer.

Obici discovered a way to blanch peanuts so the red skins came off without breaking the nut. He experimented with chocolate and syrups to create some of the first peanut candy and pioneered vacuum sealing peanuts in a can.

At times, people thought Obici was crazy. For example, shortly after coming to Suffolk, he bought a small railroad spur line that appeared to go nowhere. He promptly built his peanut warehouse over the tracks so workers could load peanuts out of the rain.

"He said, ‘Gee, I cover my railroad cars, I can cover my railroad tracks,’ " said Janet Daum, librarian at Sentara Obici Hospital.

Yet it was Obici's marketing that brought the peanut – previously sold in bulk and fed to livestock and elephants at the circus – into pantries and lunch pails all over America.

In 1918, he bought elaborately illustrated advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post, making Planters the first salted nut to be advertised. Five years later, Obici unveiled the "Nickel Lunch" campaign, which promoted an ounce of roasted peanuts as a cheap, filling snack. Then he put one letter of his last name in each bag of peanuts. When customers spelled O-B-I-C-I, they would get a prize. Later, he opened retail stores that sold Planters products directly to the consumer, a departure from traditional grocery store distribution.

Obici's enduring marketing creation, however, was Mr. Peanut.

Inspired by a teenage boy's drawing of a smiling peanut with arms, legs and a cane, the Planters folks added a top hat and monocle to create the dapper, aristocratic legume .

Unlike many of today's artsy advertising campaigns that rely on conceptual or indirect approaches, the success of Mr. Peanut lies in its simplicity.

"There's no doubt what the product is. It's the peanut," said Tom Powell, president of The Addison Group, a Suffolk advertising agency. "Mr. Obici said, ‘Look, we’re selling peanuts.’ The simplicity is the brilliance."

Obici died in 1947, but Mr. Peanut lived on. In the 1950s, television commercials provided a new outlet for Mr. Peanut. He was an attraction at the 1964 New York World's Fair. In 1978, a group dedicated to the collection of Mr. Peanut memorabilia formed. Today, Peanut Pals, which will hold its 2007 convention in Suffolk, boasts 525 members.

In 1999, Planters launched the NutMobile, a big yellow truck with a giant Mr. Peanut sitting in the back adjusting his top hat.

The NutMobile, on tour this summer, is scheduled to be in Suffolk on June 13 and in Virginia Beach from June 15 to 18.

For all of Mr. Peanut's familiarity, though, visitors don't often see inside the Suffolk Planters factory.

On a recent Friday, workers in blue jumpsuits and hair nets taped shut boxes of packaged trail mix. Forklift drivers whirred around spotless concrete floors carrying pallets loaded with cartons they stack eight high. The warehouse floor feels like the bottom of a steep canyon, walled in by mixed nuts and cocktail peanuts.

The nuts come from all over the United States and the world, said Dan Huss , plant manager . Peanuts come from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas; almonds and pistachios from California; cashews from India; and filberts from Turkey.

They’re stored and processed in three buildings totalling 575,000 square feet, about the size of 10 football fields. One building, representing about one-third of the factory, has 61 separate cold storage warehouses for raw nuts.

Kraft officials won't talk about production numbers, but the Suffolk factory makes all Planters products that come in 3- and 4-inch diameter cans found in grocery and convenience stores. The plant is also the single source for all Planters trail mix in plastic bags. The Arkansas factory makes products in larger containers for discount club stores, Huss said.

A new warehouse for storing finished products, added in 2005, freed up space for manufacturing and eliminated off-site storage. It also signalled that Planters intends to stay in Suffolk, a message that hasn't always been clear.

The relationship between Planters and Suffolk has long been complex.

After the company opened its Arkansas factory in 1975, concerns regularly arose that product lines would be shifted from Suffolk. Corporate downsizing and labor skirmishes kept people on edge.

"It seemed like every few years there was a Planters crisis," said Suffolk Treasurer Ronald H. Williams. "They were downsizing, laying off workers, threatening to move a line to Fort Smith, Arkansas."

In 1988, Planters was talking about leaving Suffolk. City officials were nervous. About 900 jobs and a huge chunk of tax revenue were on the line.

Then-City Manager John L. Rowe Jr. explained the threat like this: "It s loss to Suffolk would be like the Hampton Roads region losing the Navy."

They crafted a deal: A $4.6 million city incentive package kept the company in town.

A few years ago, relations between the company and the city soured when Planters’ warehouse expansion threatened The Fairgrounds, a redevelopment project on land the city leased to Planters. A deal was finally worked out and the project is under way.

City officials would like to set up Planters factory tours as a tourist attraction, like the Hershey chocolate factory in Hershey, Pa., but Kraft has never allowed it.

"While we are very proud of our Suffolk plant, we do not promote this or any other Kraft plant as a tourist attraction," Pernu, Kraft's spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. "These are food processing facilities, and keeping our products wholesome, safe and secure for consumers is of topmost concern."

As an example of the disconnect between the company and the city, the Planters Peanut Center in downtown Suffolk, which sells freshly roasted peanuts, candy and Planters products, has never been affiliated with Planters or Kraft and gets its product from a Pennsylvania distributor, owner Faye Beale said.

Today, Planters and the city have settled into a mutually beneficial, if shallow, relationship, usually revolving around Mr. Peanut.

Planters regularly loans Suffolk a Mr. Peanut costume to use in parades. Mr. Peanut was on last year's city auto decals. Kraft has agreed to let a city group pursue a Mr. Peanut license plate. A 3-foot statue of Mr. Peanut sits on a pedestal in a park downtown.

Suffolk's Sister City Commission and city officials visited Oderzo, Italy, Obici's birthplace. Last year, the commission threw an Italian festival in Suffolk with guests from Oderzo.

On the cover of the city's 2006 tourism brochure is a photograph of the Mr. Peanut statues on company fence posts .

Even though the only thing most tourists can see is the outside of the factory, Mr. Peanut serves a purpose.

"He is so widely recognized that we have found that families, particularly children, are attracted to him, and they pick up the brochure and they hand it to Mom and Dad," said White, Suffolk's tourism director.

Much of Planters’ diminishing role is because of rapid development . As one of the fastest-growing cities in Virginia, Suffolk has attracted many new businesses.

"The community is getting so big and the city has done a good job bringing in industry, so we’re not the lone thing anymore," said Huss, the Planters’ Suffolk plant manager .

City government and public schools, the city's largest employer, have grown. Wal-Mart, Target and QVC moved in. Northern Suffolk is a hub for military computer technology research.

Planters executives, who used to be community pillars , often come from other Kraft companies and don't have ties to Suffolk.

Earlier this year, Sentara bought Obici Hospital, perhaps Amedeo's greatest legacy and one of the region's last independently-owned hospitals. The Louise Obici Memorial Nursing School, named for Obici's wife, closed in 2003.

Quietly and without a dramatic pivotal event, Planters, the Obici legacy and the city's peanut history are fading.

In Suffolk's old peanut district, cylindrical silos of corrugated metal are topped with towering conveyor belts that don't move anymore. Boarded-up brick buildings with fading block letters tout extinct brand names. It's the peanut skyline of another era.

In addition to Planters, two other peanut companies are still plying their trade in Suffolk: Birdsong Peanuts, a sheller, and Producers Peanuts Company, a peanut butter manufacturer.

And when the wind is out of the southeast, the smell of peanuts wafts over downtown, a pungent and nostalgic reminder of what was and the little that's left.

Reach Aaron Applegate at (757) 222-5555 or aaron.applegate@pilot

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