A new roost for roasting

Nuts: The Peanut Shoppe is relocating amid city plans to redevelop its west-side block.

December 01, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The Peanut Shoppe, a business about as big as its name but long in the collective memory of its downtown Baltimore customers, is moving from its venerable Lexington Street home.

Owner Bonnie L. Scible has decided to take her custom-roasted cashews and brittle to a new location, across from a proposed Starbucks and alongside a subway entrance, where she believes new customers will be seduced by the scent of roasting and salted nutmeats. The store will reopen Tuesday at 13 W. Baltimore St., adjacent to a Rite Aid, card shop and other businesses.

The city is forcing Scible and other small-business owners to leave their locations in the block between Park Avenue and Liberty Street to clear the way for a west-side redevelopment project. City funds will pay for her move, and Scible said the Baltimore Street rent is comparable to that on Lexington Street.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions about the Peanut Shoppe said its new location will be across from a proposed Starbucks. In fact, the Starbucks already exists at Hanover and Baltimore streets.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Her little business, where most transactions are less than $5, remains a sentimental favorite in what was once the state's busiest urban shopping district -- but now a thoroughfare that has been dying for several decades. Since she bought the business, numerous neighboring shoe and variety stores have closed.

"As much as I liked Lexington Street, I had to face it: We were not going to survive here," she said. "I held out as long as I could."

"I hate to see anybody leave," said Nicholas Konstant, owner of Konstant Foods and a veteran Lexington Market peanut roaster and candy confectioner. "The times are changing downtown, and we're all waiting for that turnaround."

Scible will relocate her 80-year-old, gas-fired peanut-roasting machine, assorted members of her family who help at the shop and the goodwill of a business that will produce a peanut the way customers want it -- raw, half-raw, light roast, regular roast, well done or dark.

"We still have hundreds of people who buy just a quarter of a pound," Scrible said. "Our business strictly depends on volume, and that's the trouble.

"The people of Baltimore are the reason we've stayed in business so long," she added. "This is a small store, and they'll often wait in line patiently. My customers are the best in the world."

Her 900-square-foot shop has been offering fresh-roasted peanuts and other snacks since the mid-1930s.

Customers say part of the charm of the Peanut Shoppe is its intimacy.

"I love to eavesdrop on people's very specific orders here," said Marjorie Shulbank, a customer whose father first brought her to the shop years ago. "You'll hear, `I want 75 cents worth of broken cashews.'"

Lauretta Satchell, who has shopped there for decades, said about the move: "It stinks. I'm used to this location, but I'll be going" to the new site.

Another shopper, Liz Swanson, bought pecans on a recent day for her mother, Frances Bolth. Bolth, a resident of the College Manor nursing home in Lutherville, makes a holiday treat called "butter boats," a candy containing pecans, caramelized brown sugar and butter.

Peanut Shoppe past

Though Scible has owned the business only since 1990, the store's history goes back 70 years. It opened in the mid-1930s as the Nut House and was later a Planters franchise. Scible bought the store from an aunt, Sylvia Mandel Slifko, who went to work selling nuts in 1940.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Peanut Shoppe got spillover business from the audiences of five nearby movie theaters that had a total seating capacity of more than 11,000. Business was so brisk that there was once a second Planters shop less than a block away, as moviegoers frequently bought a bag of salted nuts for the streetcar ride home.

"After a very busy day, if the movies nearby were doing well, my aunt cooked nuts until 2 in the morning," Scible said.

A business of her own

The Peanut Shoppe is very much a family business. Scible's daughter, brother, two nieces and sister-in-law work there, in addition to other employees. Some work at a smaller Peanut Shoppe stall in Belvedere Square.

After graduating from Kenwood Senior High, Scible was a legal secretary who also did accounting work. For 15 years, she worked for an attorney.

"I always wanted a small business of my own. I had tried to open a peanut-and-candy store in the old Golden Ring Mall. It didn't work out. Malls really aren't right. I like to be able to walk around outside," she said.

Smell helps the store

Even in its final month, the Lexington Street location has hummed with the rhythm of Scible's antique peanut-roasting machine. Business at lunch hour and downtown quitting time has been brisk.

Scible has long said her best advertising is the peanut roaster. The Planters logo, Mr. Peanut, adorns its sides. The gas-fired roaster is vented out to Lexington Street, imparting a peanut smell to part of the block.

There's also a nut-cooking pot, just inside the door, that spreads the smell of peanut oil throughout the shop.

"It's the smell [of roasting peanuts] that helps the business. People say they try to make it down the street without coming in, but then they turn around and walk back," said Scible.

Nuts for all

Her best seller is the giant cashew, a nut that customers request to be served warm.

Then there are the customers who come in for burned nuts. For those on a budget, she has a 25-cent bag of peanuts. Any spilled peanuts go into bags given away to people who feed squirrels and birds.

"I get mad when I pass the shop and they are not open yet," said Bruce Kidd, a Park Heights resident who dropped by recently for a bag of peanuts. "I've been coming here since my mother brought me here as a kid, and that was a long time ago."

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