Working bag at a time for peanuts
By TERESA BURNEY, Times Staff Writer
From a spare bedroom in their Hernando Beach home, the couple sell 4-million pounds of peanuts a year.
They sell peanuts by the 2-pound bag to Publix supermarkets, by the 50-pound sack to Cody's Original Roadhouse Grill & Bar restaurants, and in a variety of other package sizes to Shop-Rite groceries in the Northeast and Lowes Foods, a supermarket chain in the South.
"The market for peanuts is unbelievable," Dennis Slattery said.
That's somewhat of a surprise in this age of convenience, since Slattery mostly sells in-shell peanuts -- the kind that are almost impossible to shell without leaving the floor around you looking like the bottom of a bird cage.
Peanuts have been Slattery's livelihood since the late 1960s, when he went to work selling them for a variety of food brokers in the New Jersey area.
"I just got into the choosing of peanuts, and sales just took off for some reason," said Slattery, 57.
He created Slattery's Peanuts shortly after moving to Hernando Beach in 1987. The company he had been working for closed its doors.
It seemed to make sense. He already knew the business, from the field to the supermarket shelf. Still, it took awhile to get the big accounts.
"It took me four years to get into Publix," he said.
First, he stood outside the supermarkets, handing out 12-ounce bags to customers for free. He asked them to tell the produce manager about the nuts if they liked them. He also asked his other satisfied customers to ask produce managers for his product.
"I can't afford to advertise," Slattery said, so he lets his product do the selling. "When I go to a party, I give everybody a pack of peanuts," he said.
Finally, the call came from Lakeland-based Publix's buyer in 1994. The buyer was concerned that Slattery, since his business is small, wouldn't be available when Publix needed more nuts. Slattery told him he was always available by cell phone, then left the meeting without giving the buyer his number.
He didn't have a cell phone at the time.
"I told him he had better get one," said Mrs. Slattery.
It wasn't long before that the Publix buyer tested him, calling him on his cell phone and asking for peanuts to be delivered within a few days. Slattery was able to comply.
Slattery's in-shell peanuts come from farmers in North Carolina and Virginia. He has an agreement with peanut producers there who roast and bag the peanuts when the orders come and then ship them directly to the grocery distributors.
Because none of the nuts pass through Slattery's home, he often has to go to Publix to buy them for his own use. He goes through about three 2-pound bags a week himself, he said.
The Slatterys can often be found on the road in their RV, visiting supermarkets that carry their products along the East Coast.
Slattery goes in to check the displays of his nuts, straighten them out when necessary and to chat with the produce managers to see if they have had any problems with the product. Such personal service distinguishes his product from the other seven peanut producers, he says.
"It makes a big difference, I think," he said. "It shows we care about quality."
Plus, the produce managers remember that they have met Mr. Slattery when they go to put in another order for peanuts, Geri Slattery said.
Slattery thinks his 10-year-old granddaughter may have inherited the peanut-selling gene. Every time her parents take her to the grocery store, she runs to the produce department to straighten out the peanut display. Then she calls her grandfather and asks to get paid for it.
The Slatterys say they get six or seven letters a week from fans. They keep them in a scrapbook.
A teacher wrote, saying he likes the picture on the side of the bags, explaining how peanuts grow. He had his students plant peanuts.
A girl wrote, looking to book her dog as a mascot for the company because he does tricks for peanuts.
The staff of a doctor's office wrote that they had all become addicted to peanuts and preferred the Slattery product.
Of course, the couple get a few complaints every now and then, if someone finds a less than perfect peanut in a bag, for instance.
Slattery is expanding his product line.
Now, most of his business is in-shell peanuts -- raw, dry roasted, and dry roasted with salt.
But he's delving into shelled peanuts in a jar or a can, and adding caramel corn to his product offerings as well.
He's also working on Slattery's Tree Nuts, selling other types of nuts in trays and bags in time for the holiday season.
That will put him in direct competition with the peanut Big Guy -- Planters.
It doesn't worry him.
"They are not going to bother me," he said. "The only time they would bother me is if we try to get too big."
And Slattery says he wants just enough of the business "to be comfortable."
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