Sunday, July 14, 2024

Powell & Stokes whets appetites with roasted snacks, farm supplies

Jeff, Jack and Jonathan Powell. Photo by Christer Berg

The plantation desk is worn by nearly a century of elbows and feet propped on the top and footrest. About a yard across and tilted forward to hold the wide ledgers used in 1919, this is where Jack Powell Jr.’s grandfather and succeeding generations stood, keeping tabs on farmers and how much they owed for fertilizer and other supplies, payable when cotton and peanut crops came in.

Then technology came to Windsor’s Powell & Stokes Inc. and its Bertie County Peanuts spinoff, and the old desk was retired along with a big safe that William Luther Powell bought when he and brother-in-law J.T. Stokes started nearly 100 years ago. “We had good intentions of using it, but we kept putting the computer on it and the thing kept sliding off,” Powell says.

Powell & Stokes is a runner-up in Business North Carolinas annual Small Business of the Year competition. It’s a family company rich in history but not stuck in the past. Its farm-supply business remains its bread and butter, say Jack Powell and his son, Jonathan Powell III, vice president, and it remains profitable and grows by double digits annually despite competition from Southern States Cooperative Inc. and others.

“Basically, the market is contracting, but we are maintaining our position in it,” Jack says. “We’re probably best known for our retail peanut products, but they’re only about 25% to 30% of our sales,” says the senior Powell, referring to its brands including Blister-Fried and Wasabi & Soy. “The rest is fertilizer and agricultural supplies.”

Not that its peanuts are, in terms of sales, peanuts. Though the company doesn’t release revenue figures, its eight employees annually cook more than 100,000 pounds of the snacks. It also sells about four trailer-truckloads of roasted-in-the-shell peanuts a year. That can add up: a 30-ounce jar of Weeping Mary’s Ghost Pepper Peanuts, for example, retails for $15.50. Continually Nuts, a $350 peanut-of-the-month subscription, is popular in high-end holiday gift catalogs and garden centers.

The Powells got into peanut snacks mostly on a whim. For years, Jack Powell Sr. fried peanuts in oil in a popcorn popper and gave them to farmers seeking supplies. The customers loved the spicy nuts, so in the 1990s, he and brother Bill decided to retail them. The then-budding internet opened national and worldwide markets, augmented by radio commercials, billboards and other advertising. Jack Jr. had an ulterior motive, too.

A 1964 graduate of N.C. State University, he’d returned to join the family business in Bertie County, one of the state’s poorest and smallest with a population of about 20,000. Over the years, its mainstay crop of peanuts had plummeted because of quotas and other restrictions aimed at supporting prices. “Back in the day, we had 40,000 to 50,000 acres,” he says, and Bertie was the state’s largest peanut grower. “Now it’s about 3,000.” Soybeans and cotton replaced peanuts, but the county was plagued by low self-esteem, and Powell joined a task force charged with changing the mood.

“It turned out, nobody who lived in Bertie County was very proud of it,” he says. “That stuck in my craw. So we decided to get into the retail peanut business and name it Bertie County Peanuts. We figured if it did well, maybe we’d have something to be proud of.”

Jonathan returned from college and rejoined the family business, and about three years ago, his younger son Jeff did too. “My grandfather and uncle died in the 1960s, and my father and uncle died in the 1990s, then my brother Bill retired, so now it’s Jon, Jeff and myself,” Jack says.

Today’s Powell & Stokes is no longer in downtown Windsor, though the weathered tin warehouse the founders built in 1939 to celebrate their 20th anniversary remains a local landmark. “They built it tall, so you could stack 100-pound bags of peanuts to the roof,” Powell says. The operation is now on U.S. 13 North, where pickup trucks and an occasional church or tour group stop by, some coming for fertilizer and seed, others for chocolate-coveredor burlap-bagged shell-roasted peanuts.

Recently, the Powells got a note from a former Bertie resident, now in Winston-Salem. Powell & Stokes had accomplished Jack Powell’s goal of putting the forgotten county on the map, she said.

“She grew up here and had just gone in an Ace Hardware store where right at the entrance they had a display of Bertie County Peanuts,” Powell says. “She was so excited she didn’t know what to do.”


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