Georgia has its famed Peanut Festival. California has two Almond Festivals. Last year in Italy, locals enjoyed Le Nocciole della Felicita, which loosely translates to “the Nut of Happiness,” a four-day celebration sponsored by more than 100 towns that are part of the Associazione Italiana delle Citta’ della Nocciola (Association of the Italian Cities of the Nut).

From the common South Carolina pecan to a pistachio grown only on the Greek island of Aegina, nuts spark devotion from consumers and inspire creative enhancement and marketing among specialty food producers and retailers.

Transforming Nuts
There are many ways that a simple nut is transformed into a specialty food. It can happen when a walnut is hand-roasted, allowing the full range of flavors to emerge. Or when salted cashews are mixed with almonds and hazelnuts, to create a tasty mix. Sometimes, it just takes a perception change for people to appreciate a nut’s value. “We’ve been doing this 34 years,” says Jane Riddick-Fries, vice president of sales and marketing at Feridies®/The Peanut Patch, Courtland, Va. “When we first exhibited at the Fancy Food Show, people were wondering what a peanut was doing in the specialty food industry. But there’s been a lot of education and now people understand that peanuts can be a gourmet item.”

Global and Regional Profiles
Savory- or sweet-flavored products often get the most attention from specialty nut consumers—especially when they reflect an international or regional taste. For its Oven Roasted Macadamias with bush pepper spice and sea salt, Brookfarm of Bangalow, New South Wales, Australia, taps into local seasonings such as Bush tomatoes wild-harvested from the Central Australian desert, mountain pepper from Tasmania and a variety of Byron hinterland lemon myrtle from a neighboring farm that is an ideal match for the macadamias.

Pamela Brook, who co-owns the company with her husband Martin, notes that the macadamia nut is native to an Australian rainforest tree. “The rich volcanic red soil and warm humid subtropical climate of our area produces a lovely, sweet-tasting macadamia,” she notes. “We oven bake in the Slow Food traditional way, slightly under-baking to retain the fresh taste you get when you eat a nut straight from the tree. Then, we vacuum seal in foil to preserve the maximum flavor and freshness.”

Nunes Farms, Newman, Calif., meanwhile, looked west for inspiration with its Maui Onion California Crunchies—toasted California almond halves with a savory mild Maui onion seasoning. This product is particularly flavorful, notes Co-owner Maureen Nunes, because “we use a split almond with a higher ratio of seasoning to product. It’s also versatile. People use it in salads, rice dishes and more.” Another Nunes product, Imperial Citrus Almonds flavored with soy, ginger, garlic and a hint of citrus, shows an Asian inclination.

Some producers meld cultures to create a single product. Philadelphia’s Society Hill Snacks got its start in the 1950s by using an old Venezuelan recipe to create sweet nuts. Today, the company merges various regional flavors in Hot Stuff Snack Blend, a product that showcases heat from around the world with Cajun hot sticks, Indian-inspired Nicely Spiced Peanuts, Asian Wasabi Peas and more.

Flavor inspiration doesn’t need to be ethnic in nature. Hot trends like citrus or coffee flavors can translate to nuts. San Joaquin Valley Farms of Fresno, Calif., for example, grows and packs such flavored nuts as Chile Lemon Pistachios and Cappuccino-flavored almonds.

Palates can vary by region. Retailers and producers in the South have a strong sweet tooth. Virginia’s The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg sells Chocolate Covered Almonds, Honey Toasted Cashews and Sweet Georgia Pecans that have been hand- cooked in copper kettles with fresh creamy butter and brown sugar according to an old-fashioned Southern recipe. Chuck Richards, proprietor of Reid’s Fine Foods in Charlotte, N.C., notes that his best-seller for the past ten years is private-label, mammoth pecans double-dipped in chocolate.

Novelty Nuts
The nut category lends itself to high-quality products with amusing names that can be easily marketed as gifts or just attention-getters on the shelf. Dave’s Gourmet’s best-seller is Dave’s Burning Nuts, a spicy hot peanut. The San Francisco-based company also offers Dave’s Lucky Nuts, where one peanut in ten is incredibly spicy (marketed as “the Russian roulette of spicy nuts”). Meanwhile, Southwest Specialty Foods, Goodyear, Ariz., offers Whoop Ass Peanuts in a can, and Novato, Calif.’s Torn Ranch continues with its popular Mashuga Nuts, cinnamon sugar-spiced pecans.

Recent nut advertising campaigns have been playful and edgy. Premium Farms, Lost Hills, Calif., spotlights its line of pistachios with the Everybody’s Nuts™! campaign, including an ad that ran in California that said “Just what L.A. needs, more nuts.” The Peanut Board also has a fun and occasionally provocative campaign: One ad shows a lone peanut with the caption “Don’t most seductive things come in a plain brown wrapper?”

Simple Yet Artful
While flavored or novelty varieties can be spotlight grabbers, some manufacturers find that simple yet artful preparations remain the key to success. “Our Feridies extra-large salted roasted Virginia peanuts outsell our other products ten to one,” notes Riddick-Fries. Customers tend to go for salted peanuts first, but then will add on one of the more exotic varieties, such as Wasabi Peanuts or the spicy Scorned Woman Peanuts, she adds.

PCC Natural Markets, an eight-store natural food cooperative in the Seattle, Wash., region, amasses high sales in bulk nuts, particularly organic varieties, reports Diana Crane, community and public relations manager. “About 13 percent of the bulk units contain plain nuts,” she adds. “People like to do their own flavorings.”

David Porat, owner of Chelsea Market Baskets in New York City, has been buying nuts from Fastachi of Watertown, Mass., for the past nine years because they are freshly roasted, then shipped immediately.

Fastachi’s Souren Etyemezian explains, “In our wholesale section, we roast to order, and don’t keep an inventory. We hand roast in small batches in steel drums adding only sea salt.” The company uses mostly American nuts (almonds and pistachios from California, Oregon hazelnuts, and peanuts from the Carolinas to New Mexico), but imports cashews from India because of their buttery taste.

Although Fastachi tends to stay away from exotic flavorings, Etyemezian finds that mixes are popular, particularly the signature cranberry nut mix, which combines cranberries, salted pistachios, salted and roasted-unsalted almonds and hazelnuts, salted and unsalted peanuts, red skin peanuts, sesame peanuts and salted cashews. The company has recently launched a new PB&J mix, a combination of roasted peanuts, salted peanuts and dried cranberries.

Mixes are also popular at Martin Wine Cellar, Metairie, La., particularly the merchant’s signature Mr. Martin Mix, a combination of dried cherries and cranberries, toasted almonds, cashews and shelled pistachios. “We’ve been selling it since about 1992, and the customers just love it,” says Margie Stoughton, gourmet food manager.  

Merchandising Matters
In addition to gift packs and trays, which bring in requisite fourth-quarter sales, nuts are ideal cross-merchandisers year round. Etyemezian notes that Fastachi’s smaller, grab-and-go sizes move quickly at the prepared food counter or at the front end as an add-on to lunch or a quick snack.  

Chelsea Market Baskets’ Porat plans to offer nuts in a glass jar in the store’s expanded cheese section, along with pairing suggestions. He was inspired by fine restaurants that freshly season nuts to accompany the cheese course. “The softness of the cheese with the crisp texture of the nuts makes a good complement,” he explains.

Stoughton recommends an ongoing in-store sampling program. Martin Wine Cellar’s customers have found new nut preferences through passive sampling of various products, she notes.

Brookfarm offers a full education pack for in-store demos, with training information on all of its products so that the sampling staff can be knowledgeable. The company also has leaflets containing recipes and usage recommendations.

A cookbook signing and demo can spark interest in nut applications beyond that of out-of-the-shell snack, or can highlight regional recipes and uses. Matt and Ted Lee, owners of The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, a mail-order catalog and website ( that popularizes the brothers’ Charleston, S.C., hometown snack, published The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, recently named The James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook of the Year. The two have been doing book signings and recipe demonstrations in stores around the country, including Balducci’s in Bethesda, Md., Earth Fare in Athens, Ga., and Whole Foods in Washington, D.C.

The Nut/Health Connection
Support for the wellness benefits of nuts continues to grow.

Ford’s Gourmet Foods, Raleigh, N.C., best known for Bone Suckin’ Sauces, began manufacturing Earth Family Sea-Salted Organic Peanuts seven months ago, and uses a portion of the proceeds to help educate elementary school children about healthful eating. The nuts are slow cooked with peanut oil and sea salt and sold in 1.5-ounce grab-and-go bags and 11-ounce tins.

“We added an organic line not due to consumer pressure, but because it was something that we as a family-owned company are passionate about,” says Patrick Ford, vice president and international marketing director. “We have kids and we want them to be able to come into the storeroom and eat whatever we sell. We don’t have products with preservatives; we want healthy foods that aren’t clogging up people’s systems.” Because the nuts are gluten- and soy-free and certified kosher, they can be merchandised in sets devoted to dietary concerns or restrictions.

Although nuts are far from low fat, they are high in the good kind of fat. Walnuts contain Omega-3 fatty acids, linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and hypertension. According to a recent Penn State study, eating 3 ounces of pistachios can help cut bad cholesterol by almost 12 percent. Almonds are high in the antioxidant vitamin E and peanuts are a good source of protein. In addition to these health perks, there is recent evidence that nuts also help fight chronic inflammation, which some researchers believe is an underlying cause in health conditions ranging from cancer to dementia.  

Feridies’ Riddick-Fries notes, “Con-sumers are more conscious about the products they’re buying. They’re reading labels more and craving good healthy ingredients, which include nuts.”

Susan Segrest has written for Marie Claire, the New York Daily News, Prevention and Seventeen.