When I was a child, I could always find a dish overflowing with walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, filberts and pecans sitting on the sideboard in the dining room. I loved cracking open the nuts and tasting the fresh, savory flavors almost as much as I loved using the nutcracker as a torture device on my brother. Twenty years later, I have replaced the shelled varieties my mother favored with a supply of wasabi-coated peanuts, cinnamon-spiced pecans and caramelized, seasoned almonds. I miss using a nutcracker, but I love what specialty nuts have added to my life: Exotic spices, intriguing flavor combinations and complete satisfaction.

What Makes a Nut Specialty?
To transform one of the many nuts on the market into a specialty nut takes a seasoned specialty food manufacturer. A cashew is delicious on its own, but when it is twice-cooked and dusted with aromatic Middle Eastern spices, it becomes a specialty. The imperative ingredient in these nuts is the food manufacturer—their creativity, plus how they season, coat and package their products.

The trends in specialty nuts are spicy (from mild to scalding), sweet (from honey-roasted to cinnamon-coated), and a combination of the two. Some companies look to capture regional flavors by using nuts and spices that are indigenous to their area or by adopting exotic flavors from abroad.

In the early 1990s, when Cajun-flavored nuts were taking off, Pamela Barefoot, president of Blue Crab Bay Company/Bay Beyond, in Melfa, Va., brainstormed with a local Virginia peanut grower to create a product for the specialty nut segment. “We decided to mix my spicy Chesapeake Bay-Style Seafood Seasoning, which is typically used to season crabs and spice up our Bloody Mary mix and salsa, with high-quality Virginia peanuts. It was a risk to mix our seasoning with nuts because it was hard for consumers to connect peanuts with seafood. Ten years later, Crab House Nuts have been so successful that we have created other products based on it, she says. “Spice levels and exotic toppings have exploded since then.

A good thing catches on quickly. “We’ve carried Blue Crab Bay’s Crab House Nuts since their inception, and I watched as our other nut vendors added spicy nuts to their lines as a result, adds Sabra Coe Young, partner, Taste Unlimited, Virginia Beach, Va.

People Gotta Eat, in Santa Fe, N.M., has devoted its business to exotic specialty nuts, such as Killer Pecans and Hootchie Cootchie Cash-ews. Seven years ago, Tom Stark, president, start-ed selling aw-ard-winning Killer Pecans. “I gave them as Christmas gifts for ten years before that. People would say, ‘Don’t give me any other gift—just give me those killer pecans.’

And a winning product was born. Killer Pecans are twice-cooked mammoth pecan halves that are spicy, slightly hot, sweet and salty. Stark regularly comes out with new products, but the Killer Pecans continue to be his best seller. “Consumers like the slightly sweet, slightly spicy combination. The little kick gets them—and the great packaging helps. We also use a secret procedure to make them. It’s labor-intensive and no one has figured it out yet, says Stark.

His two newest additions are Poco Loco Peanuts, battered and seasoned with red chili Mexican seasoning mix, and Crackenpiel Almonds, roasted and salted in the shell, which makes the shell brittle enough to pop open with your fingers. “Almonds are the big health nut right now, which has made these extremely popular, he points out.

Touching on a variety of popular nut choices combined with interesting and exotic flavoring and eye-catching packaging has made People Gotta Eat a trend-setter. Tree Nuts are a mixture of English walnuts, almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts, and cashews roasted with lemon and herb-infused olive oil. “We expanded our line with herbed nuts because we had come out with two spicy nuts and wanted more variety, Stark says.

Mynetta Cockerell, executive chef of Marty’s Food & Wine, Dallas, Tex., comments, “We always move a lot of People Gotta Eat’s specialty nuts. Tom Stark makes the most unusual nutty things of anybody I know.

Peanuts with Wasabi
Providing a novelty nut gets the consumer to buy once, but to sustain sales, manufacturers need to offer high-quality and innovative flavor combinations. Bill Del Chiaro, general manager of The Peanut Shop, formerly Williamsburg Foods, in Williamsburg, Va., introduced Wasabi Peanuts to the line of close to 170 nuts at the 2002 Summer Fancy Food Show. “When creating the product concept, we looked at what we call ‘intense flavors’ because they’re so popular now.

“We knew we had something when Good Morning America ran two pieces about the Wasabi Peanuts two days in a row. I think it was because of the novelty element, but the repeat business is exceptional, which means the product is strong. Consumers either love them or hate them, but if they hate them, they still buy them as gifts for someone else.

The Peanut Shop reports Wasabi Peanuts as one of its top 20 sellers out of 230 total products. Taking a good idea and expanding on it has proved successful as well. “The Yin Yang Peanuts evolved from wanting to give people something sweet with spicy. We added honey-roasted peanuts to the wasabi peanuts and have gotten a great response, Del Chiaro says.

The most recent addition to The Peanut Shop’s line is the Marcona Almond, which it sources from Spain. “It’s an elegant product. The almond is round as opposed to oval. We’ve packaged them in tins, but will also launch them in clear cello bags because we don’t want to cover up how beautiful the nuts are, Del Chiaro adds.

No Borders
Specialty nuts have no borders. Society Hill Snacks sells Spiced Peanuts Afrique—slightly hot, sweet and exotic peanuts that are roasted and then dusted with a special Nigerian spice. Dave’s Gourmet exceeds the heat index with Dave’s Burning Nuts. Ford’s Foods has taken the “peanut as bar snack to more sophisticated levels with Margarita Mix Wine Nuts, Merlot Wine Nuts, and Chardonnay Wine Nuts, seasoned extra large jumbo peanuts from North Carolina. Hazelnut Growers of Oregon mixes two local specialties to make Marionberry Coated Hazelnuts. And among new products from Blue Crab Bay Company are Skipjack’s, Virginia peanuts coated with butter and honey.

For a sweeter take on the specialty nut, Fran’s Chocolates combines chocolate with spiced nuts, which has won accolades from the industry for the surprisingly ideal blend of spice and sweet. Spiced Macadamia Nuts are caramelized macadamia nuts coated with hot smoked paprika, chili powder and kosher salt, then covered in dark chocolate with a dusting of cocoa. Fran’s Spiced Dark Chocolate Pecans are whole roasted chocolate-covered pecans with five spices—including cayenne pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove. Years ago, Torn Ranch’s Mashuga Nuts paved the way for this type of specialty nut confection with Cinnamon Spiced Pecans and Double Chocolate Walnuts. Both continue to be excellent sellers a decade later.

Merchandising Matters
There are certain parts of the country where nuts sell with minimal merchandising efforts. Selling peanuts in Virginia is a natural since 55 percent of all U.S. peanuts are grown in the Southeast. “When customers walk into our stores, they don’t ask ‘do you have peanuts,’ they ask, ‘where is your peanut section,’ observes Coe Young of Taste Unlimited. “Virginia has a huge peanut following. When we started out, we taste-tested every peanut there was and chose the best for our private-label line. A year ago, our work in branding the store and our private-label items came to fruition. We believe in making a powerful impact with our merchandising. For our nuts, this means creating a collage of color with our private-label nuts in the Virginia section.

“We sample out a lot of specialty nuts, says Cockerell of Marty’s Food & Wine. “We also buy bulk nuts and package them in clear containers without labels and sell them by weight. They are stacked on Metro shelving, without labels, so you can see the nuts. It’s really a great visual. We stocked The Peanut Shop’s Wasabi Peanuts at Christmas and they sold like crazy. There was a full-page ad for the nuts that we put in a clear 8 x 10 frame right by the stacking and the nuts flew off the shelves. Customers respond well to shelf talkers and they love to be educated about products.

As an added way to reach impulse buyers and snackers that pass through airports looking for regional items, Blue Crab Bay Co. developed a 4-ounce snack bag for its vendor Celebrating Maryland, a specialty retail business with stores in airports, specializing in regional foods and gifts. “Particularly in airports, consumers are 100% impulse buyers, which means we sell a great deal of these specialty nuts in 4-ounce bags, but also in the gift tins, says Melissa Fulton, CEO and president.

“In the past few years we’ve sold more of all of the specialty nuts. I’m not sure if that’s because there are more on the market or because consumers want them more, remarks Cockerell.

Health Nuts
One reason consumers may be scooping up more nuts is because of the extensive media coverage about the positive health benefits. Once considered to be too high in fat, nuts are now recognized as helping to lower the risk of some forms of cancer and elevated blood pressure, and are excellent sources of vitamin E, folic acid, protein, and fiber. (The key is moderation.) Although nuts typically derive 80 percent to 90 percent of their calories from fat, that fat is largely mono- or polyunsaturated, not saturated.

Nuts received the ultimate thumbs-up recently when the FDA approved a message that now can appear on almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. It states: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. Whether you choose to use a nutcracker on shelled almonds, walnuts or pecans or indulge on seasoned cashews or wasabi peanuts, the message is clear: It’s healthy to love nuts.