by Lorrie Griffith/editor–Southeast
West Foods, an independent grocery store in the rural southwest Georgia town of Edison, has been making and selling fried peanuts to its customers for many years. The store’s owner, John West, who bought the store from his dad, Richard, back earlier in this decade, said the peanuts have always been a differentiator for the store, which is very necessary to compete against the Walmarts and Publixes of the world, he says.
But nothing could have prepared him for the tidal wave of new business that was created after he developed a confection using the fried peanuts. A friend asked him if he would create a gift box using the peanuts, so he and some store staff came up with the idea to make peanut clusters with them. They covered some in a chocolate coating, some in a vanilla coating. The clusters were fairly small in size; 12 were put in each gift box. Soon, West realized how labor intensive it was to make those small clusters, so he decided to increase the size.
“We started making the big ones and retailing those in our store, and they were selling well,” he said.
That’s when Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association (GFIA), of which West Foods is a member, learned about the new product and told John he should enter the clusters in the Flavor of Georgia contest. The annual contest, organized by the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, is designed to help Georgia entrepreneurs spread the word about their food products.
West entered the clusters in the confections category, and when three of the 20 or so entries were chosen to compete for the Flavor of Georgia award in that category, his product was one of them. He had to do a “Shark Tank”-like presentation about the product at the competition in Atlanta in March 2017.
“We messed around and won first place in the confection division. Which shocked me,” he said.
Kuzava saw his face and asked why he wasn’t more excited about the win.
“I said, ‘Kathy, I’m in the grocery business, I’m not in the candy business.”
But the fact is, West now is in the candy business. Since he got his manufacturers license in July, about 20,000-25,000 clusters have been sold.
A new business is born
The swift takeoff of the business led him to create a separate company, the Georgia Fried Peanut Co., to manufacture the fried peanuts (they’re really fried, like you would do chicken, he says) and peanut clusters. With a manufacturers license, he now is able to supply the other retailers that want to sell the clusters in their stores. The manufacturing facility is conveniently located in what used to be a vacant space beside his grocery store.
The manufacturing part of the business is run by his daughter, Taylor, who is assisted by one full-time and two part-time employees. Four new jobs is a good thing for Edison, he says, and there are probably more to come, as the manufacturing space already can get cramped when they are filling large orders.
“Just doing 350 boxes, imagine how much space the boxes take up, as well as the product we have to get in there in order to make the clusters,” he says. “Plus the regular daily activity and regular orders, too.”
The clusters are available through a few sales channels currently: In the West Foods store; via direct order (for retailers); through a distributor who offers them to his route customers; and through Etsy, the online artisan marketplace. West says he’s also been contacted by several wineries who want to sell them in their gift shops.
West uses Facebook to let people know where the clusters are landing next at retail (he hasn’t yet gotten approval to wholesale the plain fried peanuts but is working on it).
“Every time I pick up a new customer I put ‘now available at’ on Facebook. You’ve got to utilize that social media as much as you can,” West says.
He took a university class on how to start a new food business and was ahead of the game thanks to his 20-plus years in the retail grocery business, he says.
“I knew what the price point needed to be, what the package should look like,” West said.
At first, they were putting labels on boxes, but they now have their own printed boxes that have all the information behind the product.
The box also features the “Georgia Grown” logo—a program developed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture—and West says a number people buying the clusters saw the product on georgiagrown.com. An insurance company in the Atlanta area bought 450 of the clusters to put in gift baskets. The person ordering them hadn’t even tried them, but she saw them on the website, and the Flavor of Georgia award gave her confidence to order them. West says while he knew the product was good, winning the award “validated it to me. We were selling 200 a month out of my store and all of a sudden it went to 600. It’s been kind of overwhelming, it really has.”
With the success has come all kinds of advice, much of which he sifts through and discards. There are those who have told him he’s got to automate the process as the orders continue to grow, but “all my boxes say small-batch, hand-crafted—and they are made in small batches and they’re all handcrafted. It’s touched four or five times by hand before it even gets to the box. I can go out there and try to get big and start telling lies about ‘I can meet these deadlines and provide this much product,’ but that’s not who we are. We’re a small company, we care about our product and we want to do it the right way.”
In addition to the award, there was a story in a May 2017 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the clusters, thanks to a woman in Edison who knew a reporter there.
“I’m proud to be part of Georgia and the Georgia Grown family; I’m proud to live in the state of Georgia,” said West, 46, who has worked at West Foods since he was 13, only leaving the business for a couple of years to try college.
West has been running the store—which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017—for more than 20 years now, he says. Dad Richard, now retired, still comes to the store some days since, as John says, “you can’t fish all day long.”
Richard was on the board of the Georgia Grocers Association (now GFIA) when Kuzava was hired, so she saw John grow up.
John is grateful for the family atmosphere of the GFIA. At the convention last summer, as the peanut cluster business was starting to take off, “there were so many people that were supportive of me, saying if there’s any way they can help to let me know. These people are just part of the grocery family that I’ve been in all my life, and they want to see people succeed. That’s one of the highlights of the year—we get to go see all those people that literally watched me grow up that I respect in the grocery industry. They were wanting to be so helpful and sell my product.”
Since he is USDA licensed, he can now sell across state lines, so the sky really is the limit.
“The funny thing about it is I haven’t tried to sell these,” West says. “I’ve never had something somebody wants this bad.”
The 2018 Flavor of Georgia contest is March 20 at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot in Atlanta.