Playing Peppy the Pepper at Super Fresh turns out to be a hot job

April 23, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

EVEN UNDER normal circumstances - and believe me, there's nothing normal about hanging out with a guy dressed in a bell pepper costume - Kenny Carter is not exactly shy and withdrawn.

But at 10:15 in the morning at the Rosedale Super Fresh on Chesaco Avenue, he is in full Peppy the Pepper mode, which is to say he`s a whirlwind of activity, cruising the aisles at warp speed, greeting customers, hugging old ladies, even singing to them.

Imagine Luther Vandross jacked up on 10 espressos and dressed as a giant vegetable, and you have some sense of what we're dealing with here.

The minute he spots me, Carter opens his arms wide like an old vaudevillian crooner and, in a voice that can be heard in Montana, sings:

I'm Peppy the Pepper

How do you do?

Welcome to Super Fresh

We love you!

You can slice me or dice me

Sautee me, too,

I'm Peppy the Pepper

And we love you!

Now, I want you to understand something.

I am not the sort of person who can gracefully handle being sung to by a giant bell pepper, especially not in public, and especially not with 20 or so shoppers staring.

Besides which, adults in costumes always make me nervous. The Oriole Bird, the San Diego Chicken, the drunk couple dressed up as Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky at the neighborhood Halloween party, they all creep me out.

But the thing about Kenny Carter is this: He has such an engaging, infectious personality that after a moment or two in his presence, you almost forget you're being addressed by the fruit of a shrubby perennial plant.

Carter, a 40-year-old co-manager of community relations for Super Fresh, has been doing his Peppy the Pepper gig for about four years as sort of a roving goodwill ambassador for the supermarket chain.

He says God gave him the idea.

A deeply spiritual man, he says he was in church one day when ... well, let him tell it.

"It was a very powerful worship - I was crying out in the middle of church: `Oh, God! Oh, God! And suddenly I heard an audible male voice that said: `You will be a vegetable.' "

Beg pardon?

"I know!" laughs Carter. "I looked around, thought I was going crazy! I began to worship again. I said: `Lord, speak to me.` And I heard it again: `You will be a vegetable.'

"I turned to my wife Paula and said: `I just heard from God.' She said: `You did? What did he say?' I said: `I'm going to be a vegetable.' And she just cracked up right there."

But Carter, he took this whole conversation seriously.

He'd always had this thing for peppers since his days growing up in Edmondson Village. So he had a friend from church make him a bell pepper costume, came up with a snappy song - OK, snappy might not be the word for it - and persuaded his bosses at the Super Fresh on Perring Parkway to let him try the act out on shoppers.

From the get-go, they seemed to love it.

Oh, sure, there was always some grump ducking with his shopping cart down the housewares aisle when Peppy approached - a giant bell pepper stalking you might not be everyone's cup of tea.

But when you see little kids squeeling with delight as Peppy croons to them, when you see grandmothers hug him and retired steelworkers laugh as he flacks peppers in the produce section ("My cousins! And only 99 cents a pound!"), you realize this gig can only be good for the store.

"If you don't have a smile on your face when you come in, he'll give you one," said shopper Paul Stevenson of Rosedale, a few moments after Peppy had mortified me with that store-stopping ditty.

"He's probably the greatest guy I ever met," said Roy Hall, the store manager. "He's got a great outlook on life. Many of our [customers] will shop at a specific store if they know he's going to be there."

Clearly, Carter is a man who would find something sunny to say about an earthquake.

Given that fact, it's hard to believe he was once a bad guy. But he says he was, before he was "transformed" seven years ago.

"I used to do drug dealing," he says softly as we stand in the back of the store, near the seafood section. "I used to put women out on the street. I was in and out of jails, in and out of rehab. Had an FBI agent tell me I wouldn't see 25."

He says he used crack and heroin. But all that, he says, ended when he made a spiritual pact with the Lord to give up that life and embrace the Word.

As he's telling me about his past, an old friend of Carter's, shopper Helen Spyridakos of Rosedale, listens intently.

When he`s finished, she says softly: "My sister and mother need your prayers."

Her sister, she explains, is going through a difficult pregnancy. And her mother is about to undergo surgery.

"Let's pray right here," says Carter.

The two hug and close their eyes. And right there in seafood, with shoppers bustling past with heaping shopping carts and store clerks re-stocking the shelves, Kenny Carter begins: "Father, I ask for the healing process. We ask in Jesus's powerful name, we ask you to intervene ..."

When the prayer ends, Helen Spyridakos is weeping. When she leaves, I ask Carter if shoppers ever complain about his praying, which he says he`s done in the store with many customers.

"I haven't gotten one complaint," he says. "I don't bang people over the head with the Word. I live it."

Roy Hall, the store manager, says he's never received a complaint about Carter`s praying, either.

"I think he handles that very well," Hall says. "He doesn't come on too strong."

As I leave the store a few minutes later, Peppy the Pepper gives me a hug. Mercifully, he does not launch into the Peppy the Pepper song again.

One of those a day is about my limit.

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