Someone calculated that peanut butter can be found in more than 90 percent of all U.S. households. That percentage may edge up even higher in the Midwest, where a lot of peanut butter history has unfolded … and continues to do so.
In 1890, a physician in St. Louis, Mo., encouraged the owner of a food products company, George Bayle, to process and package ground peanut paste as a nutritious protein substitute for people with poor teeth who couldn’t chew meat.
As America observes Peanut Butter Lovers Month in November, the emphasis is on sampling old and new recipes that contain peanut butter. Americans do love their peanut butter – annual U.S. retail sales now top $1.18 billion.
The bright idea to celebrate a peanut butter month was introduced in 1990 by the Southern Peanut Growers, a trade association representing peanut farmers in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. These four states grow about two-thirds of the U.S. peanut crop each year, and the farmers thought it would be great way to say “happy 100th birthday” to the industry.
Krema Products Company in Columbus, Ohio, started making peanut butter in 1908 and is the oldest peanut butter company still in operation today. However, the company culture is in the midst of big change, due to new management. It’s a crazy story; a tale of two Richards: Richard Sonksen and Richard Marcus.
Kimmi Wernli is the new Krema CEO. Her father, Richard Sonksen, was an investment banker in Japan. “When I was 6-years-old, he decided that he wanted to be his ‘own boss,’” she said. “He was tired of the corporate world and wanted to live in America and raise his family there. My parents took all their savings and bought this very small natural peanut butter company (Krema) in 1988. Other family members wondered if Richard Sonksen was crazy.
Richard Marcus was running a music school for nursery age children in Philadelphia in 1972. Frustrated that he couldn’t find what he considered to be “good peanut butter” in local supermarkets, he had decided to make his own, running his peanuts through his kitchen blender.
Richard Marcus slapped his “Crazy Richard’s” label on the first batch of 144 jars and peddled them. A new company was born.
In 1990, Richard Marcus of Crazy Richard’s was ready to retire and looking for someone to continue his legacy. Somehow, the two Richards found each other. “Each had his own brand of natural, no sugar, no salt, no hydrogenated oil, 100% peanuts peanut butter,” Wernli recalls.
For the next 15, years, Richard Sonksen ran both companies simultaneously with their own labels.
When Wernli took over in 2016, she embraced the quirkiness of Crazy Richard’s.
JD Malone, a reporter with The Columbus Dispatch newspaper, recently interviewed Wernli, and wrote: “By the end of this year, the name Krema will be only on the company, no longer on its peanut butter. The brand will be Crazy Richard’s.
“We spent a lot of time going back and forth, looking at data,” Wernli said. “Crazy Richard’s was growing at a much faster pace, and for consumers, it was much more memorable.” At tasting events, with both products on display, it was no contest. “Crazy Richard’s won every time,” Wernli said, “especially with younger consumers.”
Wernli has also expanded the company’s outreach via social media. The company has done a total overhaul of the Crazy Richard’s website to make it more contemporary. To “give back,” she formed “Healthy Kids Happy Future,” whereby the company partners with nonprofits, churches and children’s charities in the Columbus area by donating time and product. Now, 10 percent of corporate profits are being donated to children’s health organizations.
Peanut butter lovers can step back in time by visiting the Krema Nut Co., at 1000 Goodale Blvd., Columbus, which serves gourmet peanut butter sandwiches and ice cream. Try the “PB Nana,” a toasted peanut butter sandwich filled with honey and sliced bananas, and top it off with a double scoop “Buckeye Sundae,” made with vanilla ice cream, peanut butter topping, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry.
Tastes Vary Across the Map
Among the “active brands,” which is America’s best-tasting peanut butter?
Southern Living magazine’s food editor Lisa Cericola is in love with Crazy Richard’s. In her words: “It’s smooth and spreadable … with a rich, well-balanced, roasted peanut flavor. And when I put Crazy Richard’s to the peanut butter cookie test, it passed deliciously.”
The New Yorker magazine’s Jon Michaud casts his ballot for Smucker’s. So did “Grandma” on Amazon.com who wrote: “Smucker’s is to die for. Just peanuts, nothing else. There are so many ways to use it. On an apple, on a cracker, in a sandwich and in cooking sauces. Great source of protein for those of us seniors who like to watch the budget and also eat well.”
Taste of Home magazine evaluated “crunchy only” varieties and picked Peter Pan. Editors said: “The creamiest, smoothest and sweetest of the bunch was Peter Pan. It was almost like scooping crunchy, nutty frosting from a jar. You could taste the sugary sweetness in each bite. Peter Pan had a firm texture and fresh nutty taste. It’s pretty … like ice cream.”
Skippy won the favor of judges at Serious Eats, a website and blog for food enthusiasts, created by food critic and author Ed Levine, who is based in New York City. The assessment: “Skippy’s really smooth and creamy, slightly saltier than sweet, and rounded out with a savory roasted-ness; everything we were looking for. It’s the peanut butter we’d eat by the spoonful, and the one we want to smear on a sandwich.”
An up-and-comer is Reese’s Peanut Butter, now part of Hershey’s, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in North America. The marketing message is: “It’s like we scooped out a bunch of Reese’s Cups and put the insides in a jar for you to make sandwiches and stuff. You’re welcome.”
Planters is another new player, with its 101-year-old but ever spry Mr. Peanut character leading the natural transition from nuts to peanut butter.
Jif, the top-selling brand, though not the first choice of any of the “selected panelists” mentioned here, tallied “honorable mention” votes, nonetheless.
Having no clear-cut peanut butter taste test winner is what stirs this industry and contributes some $1.18 billion to retail sales every year in the United States.
Peter Pan Brings Drama to the Supermarket
Sir James Matthew Barrie, the Scottish novelist and playwright, who created “Peter Pan” in 1904, never gave permission to an American manufacturer to use his character on tins and jars of peanut butter.
Writing as J.M. Barrie, he watched his play performed on the London stage, as audiences raved about “the fantastical tale of the flying boy who never grew up and his adventures in Neverland with the Darling children” – Wendy, John and Michael.
The next 25 years would bring Barrie “significant international acclaim for his various tales of Peter Pan” as well as wealth. In 1929, as age was creeping up, he decided to donate the copyright and all royalties from any future uses of the character Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London. It was viewed as a great expression of the man’s magnanimity.
Now, almost 90 years after the fact, Andrew Clayman of the Made-in-Chicago Museum is questioning the ethics of a decision in 1928 by E.K. Pond Packing Company of Chicago to put Peter Pan’s name on its peanut butter containers, “without making the slightest attempt at properly licensing it from its creator.”
Clayman’s concern appears to have merit, but lo, it’s too late to order George Cantine Case, the man who was serving as E. K. Pond president in 1928, to walk the plank and be devoured by the tick-tocking crocodile.
E.K. Pond’s peanut butter brands Yankee and Toyland had been around since about 1915, but they had mostly fallen flat, according to Clayman’s report.
It was Case’s decision to “basically throw caution to the wind” and rebrand its peanut butter as Peter Pan in 1928, Clayman wrote.
Most likely, J.M. Barrie was unaware that Peter Pan Peanut Butter even existed in the United States. He died in 1937.
There are no records of royalty payments being made to the hospital by the peanut butter company or that the hospital requested them. There is no paper trail to suggest that any legal action was ever taken to challenge the use of Peter Pan’s name or image by a U.S. food processor.
The Peter Pan Peanut Butter brand became one of the top three in America, trailing only Jif and Skippy.
The brand received a big boost in 2007 with the announcement that Disney’s version of the Peter Pan character would become the Peter Pan Peanut Butter “mascot,” straight out of the 1953 animated film version.
Other movie characters could and would appear in the advertising campaign, including Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, The Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, Nana the Darling family dog (a Newfoundland) and the twinkling magical fairy named Tinker Bell.
OK, Tink, sprinkle on that pixie dust and just watch those jars begin flying off the shelves.
This is a fun time, as the industry is in the throes of “peanut butter wars.” It’s nuts out there, as gourmet, artisanal, flavored and organic varieties of peanut butter are sprouting up practically overnight.
One industry insider said: “It’s clear that what food entrepreneurs are trying to do to peanut butter what Starbucks did to coffee.” Others say what the “peanut butter nation” is experiencing is akin to the pop up of craft breweries everywhere.
As November is “National Peanut Butter Lovers” month, it might be fun to expand your comfort zone with a new variety or flip from creamy to crunchy.
Koeze’s Peanut Butter Hasn’t Changed since 1925
Fortunately, not all the peanut butter aisles are found in mega-supermarkets.
Such is the case with the Koeze Company, founded in 1910 in Grand Rapids, Mich., by Sibbele Koeze, an immigrant from the Netherlands. He started a wholesale grocery business by selling produce, butter and eggs to small stores around the city.
His son, Albertus Koeze, took over the business around 1918, and purchased a local peanut butter company in 1925. From then on, premium peanut butter and roasted nuts have been a primary part of Koeze’s product offering. Today, in addition to the manufacturing facility, there are two Koeze Company retail stores in the Grand Rapids area.
Select Koeze’s classic Cream-Nut Natural Peanut Butter or its Sweet Ella’s Organic Peanut Butter. Each brand is available in both smooth and crunchy. Jeff Koeze in now the man in charge. His parents, Scott and Ruth Koeze gave him the keys to the store in 1997.
This was going to be a “life test” for Professor Jeff Koeze, who was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill as a faculty member in the School of Government.
As an undergraduate at Carolina, he met Kate Reid, a classmate (both were Morehead scholars and graduated from UNC-CH). He went on to receive his law degree from the University of Virginia. Jeff and Kate were married in 1986.
A lot of people snickered when they learned the nutty professor was going home to Michigan and run the family nut factory in 1997. He’s a real nut case, they laughed. (Guess who is laughing today on his way to the bank.)
In an article for Inc. magazine in 2008, Jeff Bailey wrote: “A few months after Jeff Koeze showed up, his father went on vacation and didn’t come back. Didn’t return phone calls, either,” Bailey wrote. ‘I know your dad – he’s retired,’ a longtime worker told Jeff, who was in disbelief. ‘That just can’t be,’ he replied. But it was.”
Bailey continued: “Thus began the education of an educated CEO, a lawyer and tenured professor steeped in book learning but lacking any business experience … at a company that had been built and run by his shoot-from-the-hip father.”
“Is selling nuts really so complicated?” Bailey asked. It can be. “Extreme seasonality, with 96.5 percent of sales coming in the fourth quarter, requires rapid expansion and sudden shrinkage. It’s jarring.”
The professor figured it out. Don’t change a thing about the peanut butter formula. Keep on cranking out vintage peanut butter, using vintage machinery. “Though more costly to run and maintain, this machinery allows us to slow down the process and focus on the craftsmanship,” Jeff Koeze said.
“We produce small batches. We add nothing more than a pinch of sea salt. There are no artificial colors, preservatives or sugar, and it’s never homogenized.”
Jeff Koeze was smart enough to work on other areas of the business to boost sales, improve profit margins and introduce technology.
One question remains: Who is the peanut butter brand Sweet Ella named for? Blogger Liz Neumark had a curious mind, and in 2011, she uncovered the truth. She revealed to her followers:
The Sweet Ella pictured on the peanut butter label is Ella Coeze, daughter of Jeff and Kate. At the time, she was headed for Chapel Hill to attend UNC-CH as a Morehead scholar. (Did someone mention nuts falling close to the tree?)
Ella Coeze graduated from Carolina in 2015 and was last seen in New York City, working as a journalist for FiveThirtyEight, a web-based company that is owned by ESPN. It specializes in blogging sites that target politics, economics and sports.
Do you think that could be a good training ground for the fifth generation of Coeze Company management?
Orrville, Ohio: America’s ‘Peanut Butter Capital’
J.M. Smucker Company of Orrville, Ohio, is the nation’s premier peanut butter company, owning two of the top four peanut butter labels. Smucker’s Peanut Butter (introduced in 1965) is in fourth place, while the industry leader is Jif, which has been part of the Smucker’s stable of brands since 2002.
According to a 2016 peanut butter survey of favorite brands conducted by Statista (an online market research portal), 112.8 million Americans prefer Jif. Skippy is second with 81.0 million fans, followed by Peter Pan with 45.0 million loyalists. Smucker’s was next with 22.6 million.
In the early 1800s, the real Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) came through the Ohio wilderness to meticulously plant his seeds to grow apple orchards. He had a business plan.
“Frontier law allowed people to lay claim to land through development of a permanent homestead. Such a claim could be made by planting 50 apple trees,” noted Kristy Puchko, who researched this subject for Mental Floss, a digital media company geared primarily toward the “millennial audience.”
She said Chapman planted swaths of seeds to begin each orchard. Then, he would file his claim to get the deed to the property. Once the land had grown bountiful, Chapman would sell his land to settlers. “This made him quite the land baron,” Puchko stated.
“Chapman’s apples were called ‘spitters’ – named for what you’d likely do if you took a bite of one. But this extreme tartness made them ideal for making hard cider and applejack. This was a far more valuable crop than edible apples,” she concluded.
One of those early cider mills was established in 1897 in Orrville, Ohio, by farmer Jerome Monroe Smucker. (The official history of the J.M. Smucker Company confirms the mill pressed ‘Johnny Appleseed apples’ to make cider.)
A secondary Smucker’s product was apple butter, which was sold out of the back of a horse-drawn wagon. Each apple butter crock bore a hand-signed seal by J.M. Smucker as his personal guarantee of quality.
Before long, consumers came to associate the Smucker’s name with wholesome, high-quality fruit products. This year marks Smucker’s 120-year anniversary, and the fifth generation of the Smucker family is at the helm of the company.
An article for Fortune magazine in 2010 written by Marc Gunther made note: “People are hired (at Smucker’s) for attitude as well as aptitude.” Nowadays, Smucker’s is traditionally found on the Fortune list of “Best Companies to Work For.”
“Smucker’s won’t buy TV commercials on shows with violent or sexual content; instead, it sponsors the birthday greetings for centenarians on NBC’s Today show,” Gunther wrote.
“For most of its history, Smucker’s was ‘fruit-centric’ and expanded by buying other jam and jelly companies in Brazil, Great Britain and Australia. It produced the fruit that sits at the bottom of Dannon yogurts and supplied the fillings for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts.”
In the mid-1990s, the company shifted its focus to own and market Number One brands that “are sold in the center of North American grocery stores,” according to Executive Chairman Richard Smucker. He told Fortune’s Gunther: “The real money in supermarkets is made in the middle of the store, where processed foods and well-known brands reign supreme.”
Smucker’s bought: Jif and Crisco brands from Procter & Gamble in 2002; International Multifoods, which included Pillsbury and Hungry Jack, in 2004; and Folger’s from Procter & Gamble in 2008. The theory is: “Smucker’s can influence what Americans eat for breakfast and lunch, but not so much at dinner.”
Two out of three meals a day is working just fine for Smucker’s bottom line.
Beech-Nut Print Ads Featured Parker Paintings
Beech-Nut Packing Company was formed in 1891 in the Mohawk Valley town of Canajoharie, N.Y.
Robert M. Grace reported for his Metropolitan News-Enterprise news service in Los Angeles, that “several country boys went in together to make fine and wholesome foods. They started with hams, then bacon … and bacon was followed by peanut butter.”
Grace researched Beech-Nut Peanut Butter print ads from 1915 through 1923. Those featuring the rosy-cheeked faces of young children painted by artist Cushman Parker were hall of fame caliber then … and still are.
Cushman Parker did at least 33 paintings for Beech-Nut that were used in the company’s marketing and advertising campaigns. (Beech-Nut is most famous for its baby food products, and this has been the company’s niche market for several decades now.)
Little is known about the artist. He was born in Boston in 1881 as Charles Henry Cushman Parker and was accepted to study art in 1900 at the esteemed Académie Julian, a private art school for painting and sculpture founded in Paris, France, in 1867 by French painter and teacher Rodolphe Julian.
During the early part of the 20th century Cushman Parker was a prominent competitor of the younger, noted American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, born in 1894, according to the askArt.com website.