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Thursday, October 21, 2010

State Fair Food Classics: The Peanut Factory

Posted by on Thu, Oct 21, 2010 at 7:12 PM

Butch Skillman at his stand, The Peanut Factory.
  • Butch Skillman at his stand, The Peanut Factory.

Don’t expect typical fair pageantry at The Peanut Factory. The fair booth, which is located near the twinkling lights and twirling rides of the Midway, is as humble and unassuming as the simple roasted nuts that it sells. As Butch Skillman, the factory’s owner, puts it, “Flash doesn’t go with peanuts.” What does, is antiques.

The Peanut Factory’s little white trailer with wood panel backing provides shelter to numerous styles of out of date equipment. Take its 85-year-old roasters, for instance. According to Skillman, the A.J. Deer Company that created those machines has been out of business since 1929, so Skillman keeps an extra roaster on hand to use for spare parts.

The roasters, like the booth’s other aged equipment—a 1940s scale and 1950s manual cash register—are beautiful. Part rust and part polished metal, they are full of interesting details, including an embossed vegetal pattern across their front, which makes them nothing if not eye-catching. And it’s exactly that which Skillman’s father, Don Skillman, was going for when he started his business in the late 1960s. “He had the foresight that he needed something that stood out,” says Butch Skillman of his father. Before starting his own booth, Don Skillman worked for numerous other fair vendors who sold popular products like hot dogs from similar looking stands. Peanuts roasted on the spot, he believed, would set him apart, and they definitely do.

The machines, which ping peanuts into large metal bins, are a sight to see and hear when in operation. And the products themselves are cheap and fairly healthy compared to many fried fair alternatives. A 5-ounce bag is $1.50, and a 12-ounce bag just $3. Butch Skillman also points out that roasting the nuts on site allow him to oversee the quality of the food that he sells. “It’s easy to pick out any product that is questionable.”

The Peanut Factorys 85-year-old roasters.
  • The Peanut Factory's 85-year-old roasters.

The North Carolina State Fair is one of 14 events that The Peanut Factory visits between July and October each year, but for Butch Skillman, it’s one of his favorites. A resident of New Jersey during the off-season, traveling to the fair gives him a chance to visit his father, now retired from the business, at his home in Clayton, and to catch up with folks. “The business is not just about making money, it’s about making friends, too,” says Butch Skillman. He explains that he and his father both enjoy talking to folks, which brings up another success of The Peanut Factory’s style: according to Butch Skillman, the old equipment is a great conversation starter.

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