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Peanut Butter's Popularity Spreads

Old-time company finds niche growing. AMERICAN FOOD

VERDA NUNGEFTER is ``nanny'' to her granddaughter; but at work, she's ``the peanut butter lady.'' For almost 25 years, she's been clocking in at the Krema Product Company here, putting on her hair net. She is quality control expert for her company's premier product. ``If we get a new batch of peanuts in, they come get me to sample 'em,'' says Verda in a homey Ohio accent. ``They'll start grindin' the nuts a little bit and then have me taste 'em to see if they're all right.'' A bad batch of nuts could be ``real dry in your mouth.''

Founded in 1898, Krema Product Company may be the oldest peanut butter company in the United States. Its founder began to sell peanut butter in 1908. With just 14 employees, Krema is surely the smallest and most traditional peanut butter company around. The operation is cozy, looking more like a large kitchen than a factory.

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Though Krema's peanut butter is sold in the gourmet-food section of Columbus-area grocery stores, ``we're not like Godiva Chocolate,'' says owner Craig Sonksen. The product is simply high-quality peanuts, he says - roasted, ground up, and put in jars with no sugar, salt, or other additives.

Indeed, consumers' growing attraction to ``purer'' and ``healthier'' foods is a boon to Krema company, says Ronald Kellogg, marketing director. There's also been a dramatic rise in peanut-butter consumption: up 18 percent between last August and this March, says the US Department of Agriculture. The year before, it jumped 10 percent.

``Our passion for peanut butter has been growing,'' says Mitch Head, executive director of the Peanut Advisory Board in Atlanta. Adults, surprisingly, are fueling the trend, especially senior citizens. Mr. Head chalks it up to peanut butter's cheap and stable price, its lack of cholesterol, and its long shelf life.

Natural or old-fashioned peanut butter - which needs a good stir when first opened and refrigeration after that - makes up about 10 percent of the market. While no one region of the US likes peanut butter more than another (``it's slathered coast to coast,'' says Head), people on the West Coast prefer natural over ``homogenized'' by 2 to 1.

Producers of Jif, Skippy, and Peter Pan - the leading homogenized brands - add hydrogenated vegetable oil (hardened fat) to keep the oil from rising to the top. That also means they can ship their product long distances and store it without spoiling.

Traditional peanut butter is a ``produce item,'' says Mr. Kellogg. Krema produces to order and distributes directly to local stores within a few days of production. Workers in hard hats and white gloves fill jars one at a time.

``We can't compete with Skippy and Planters in quantity, but they can't touch us on freshness,'' says Kellogg. A 16-ounce jar of Krema is about $2.

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Peanuts from Georgia arrive shelled and cleaned. With customized machinery, Krema removes any remaining skins as well as the tiny ``hearts,'' or nodules, that hold the peanut halves together. They would give the butter a bitter taste otherwise.

Joe Ricker is Krema's ``master roaster.'' He mans a rolling, drum-shaped oven and relies on 20 years of experience to determine doneness. If one doesn't watch closely, ``you can burn 'em or dry 'em out,'' he says in a thick Kentucky drawl. After dry roasting, the nuts are put through a 1938 power grinding mill.

Over the roar of the grinder, Kellogg talks about Krema's chunky peanut butter. Large peanut-butter makers, he says, usually take their lowest quality nuts, make ``crunchies'' out of them, and add them to creamy peanut butter. Krema's chunky butter is made by grinding up the nuts just short of creamy.

Peanut butter first appeared in St. Louis, according to the Peanut Advisory Board. In 1890 a physician there, whose name has since been lost, invented the product as a low-cost, protein-rich paste for his elderly patients, most of whom had no teeth. At the 1903 World's Fair in St. Louis, a man named C.H. Sumner sold peanut butter to the general public.

Krema's founder, Benton Black, began selling peanut butter in 1908 with the slogan ``I refuse to sell outside of Ohio,'' chiefly because the roads were so bad and the butter, packed in barrels, spoiled quickly. Due to his much-publicized obstinacy, he was inundated with orders. From 1930 through the '50s, Krema boomed.

``Stabilized'' peanut butter took off in the '50s. Mr. Black refused to ``adulterate'' his product, and Krema's market share fell.

Krema's new owner, Sonksen, who jokingly calls himself ``a reformed investment banker,'' foresees better times. ``We're not sitting back anymore,'' he says. Among recent visitors here were dark-suited executives from a major food chain, and a famous TV celebrity with his film crew:

Watch for Krema peanut butter on ``Mister Roger's Neighborhood'' with Fred Rogers next season.

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