Growing Slow But Steady
Carving out a niche in the Virginia-type gourmet peanut market
Belmont Peanuts of Southampton, Inc. started in the basement of a historical home near Capron, Va. The home dates back to 1790 and is listed on the National Register and State Register for historical places.
Patsy Marks, co-owner of Belmont Peanuts with her husband, Bob, says agribusinesses such as hers can succeed if they deliver a quality product and hire good employees.
PHOTOS BY ROCKY WOMACK.
The peanut business, located in Southampton County, began in 1993 under the direction of Patsy Marks with moral support from her husband, Bob. She built her business slowly, managing it as customers ordered from the limited line of peanut products she had available. To increase business and give her a larger customer base, she purchased a 500-name mailing list from a former North Carolina peanut company that was going out of business. She sent 500 direct-mail letters to that list, which consisted of people who recognized the quality of Virginia-type peanuts.
The mailing list response gave her the boost she needed to grow the business slowly while tending to three children. "I wanted to run the business," Marks says. "I didn't want it to run me."
Taking it to another level
David Peck joined the business in 2004. He had previous experience running other peanut companies and brought that knowledge, as well as his cooking expertise, to Belmont Peanuts.
"With the help of David Peck bringing to the business his expertise of cooking a quality product and managing the operation at a very efficient level, it's allowed us to always offer to the customer the freshest product possible, great customer service and a 100 percent guarantee that our customers are satisfied," Marks says.
Also in 2004, the business was moved to a building on the family farm, where Bob and his brother, Mike, grow peanuts on about 250 acres. A kitchen area was installed for cooking the peanuts.
Belmont Peanuts offers a variety of peanut products to its loyal customer base.
A few years later they needed to expand again. In 2011, a warehousing facility was built and serves as a storage and shipping facility.
Peanuts come from the family farm and some are purchased from a nearby sheller who buys them from local Virginia peanut growers. "What we really enjoy doing is promoting the Virginia-type peanut that has really become so well-known worldwide," Marks says.
Peanut plants are off to a good start near Capron, Va.
The other growers extend to about a 60-mile radius, planting peanuts in the area's sandy soil.
Belmont Peanuts offers about 14 products. The top seller is the gourmet salted peanut, followed by barbecue peanuts. Marks doesn't plan to extend that line anytime soon. "I feel like what we're carrying right now is sufficient," she says. "I'd rather have fewer lines and do them well than to stretch out, continuing to add products and not be able to manage them efficiently."
Belmont Peanuts are sold wholesale and retail, through corporate gifting, fundraising, private labeling, wine festivals, gift shops, farmers' markets, trade shows, and online through the company's website (www.belmontpeanuts.com).
Carl Evans applies land plaster to peanuts in Southampton County, Va., while Stanley Benn drives the tractor. Land plaster is a source of calcium and improves pod development. Benn notes that the land plaster is applied on 14 rows at a time.
Marks says her best marketing tool is word-of-mouth and comes from tasting and sharing a great product. She takes pride in the fact that Belmont Peanuts delivers a freshly cooked and packaged product. Bob notes that the peanuts are cooked when the orders come in.
"It's been an interesting adventure, this business, and we have met some of the nicest people all over the country," Marks says. "It's always a pleasure to meet our loyal customers on a personal level."
For the future, she envisions continued growth and making the operation more sustainable. Part of that future includes her son, Robert, who graduated this year with a major in small business entrepreneurship from East Carolina University in North Carolina. He will join the business once he returns from college.
Land plaster, or gypsum, is a good source of calcium and is applied to peanuts because it aids in pod development. It is usually applied 20 to 40 days after planting, according to Clemson University.
Martha Walker, community viability specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service in Danville, Va., says Marks can increase the promotion of her business through social media, as recommended by the Virginia Tourism Department. Some companies have success using Groupon and Living Social.
Walker says Marks can "develop a collaborative relationship with similar businesses and jointly market their companies by selling and promoting each others' products and events."
"We've also suggested that companies offer gift certificates as giveaways for local radio contests or as part of local fundraising programs for civic and community groups," Walker adds.
Land plaster can be seen on peanut plants the same day it is applied. It will give plants a boost of calcium to assist in pod development.
Agribusinesses could list Belmont Peanuts on "key websites" such as Virginia Grown (www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown), Foodzie (http://foodzie.com), Shop Virginia (www.shopvafinest.com) and Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org/store).
Other marketing strategies that Walker suggests include distribution entities from point of manufacture to the final consumer. Those strategies include the following:
- Selling to wholesale distributors
- Using food brokers to find buyers
- Marketing to grocery stores
- Selling to restaurants
- Marketing to hospitals, schools and the military
Agribusinesses can sell directly to retail outlets such as specialty and gourmet stores, and health food and natural food stores, Walker says. They also can sell directly to the consumer on the Internet, by face-to-face sales, with gift baskets, and through mail order.
Walker recommends building relationships with retailers and customers. To help build relationships with retailers, she suggests offering in-store sampling on high-traffic days, displaying colorful merchandising signage in department locations, and spotlighting or flagging new items. To build relationships with customers, Walker advises trying buy-one-get-one free offers, coupons, in-store sampling, selling through fundraising opportunities and offering samples at community events.
Words of wisdom
Marks has learned a lot about business - promoting it and building it. Here's her advice.
- Make sure your heart is in it, because it takes an enormous amount of time, energy, dedication, money and years to build up a business.
- Overcome the challenge of established competitors in order to gain market share. Marks believes in sampling. "We give the customer the experience of tasting our product, and most of the time we have a customer that will return to us. It's all about getting the customer to taste. Once that's accomplished we have repeat business," she explains.
- Make sure that you have a good team of employees supporting you so you can deliver a great end product. Without a good team of honest, dedicated employees, no business will succeed.
In retrospect, Marks says she would probably do some things differently if she had to start her business over. "If anything, I wish the business could have grown at a faster rate, but with my children being my first priority the business grew at a slower rate, but a very steady rate," she says. "We've done OK. I think where we are, at this point in time, we potentially have a really good growth rate in front of us. We're out there in enough numbers and places to make a difference. Our doors are always open for new opportunities and new ways to expand our business."
Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.