Meet the Maker: Virginia Diner
, by Hannah Lee Leidy
, by Hannah Lee Leidy
In 1929, a roadside railcar diner opened in Wakefield, Virginia, along Highway 460. Nestled in the heart of peanut country, just a mile from the field where the first commercial peanut crop was grown, Mr. D’Earcy Davis turned out fried chicken, biscuits, collard greens, and other Southern classics to travelers en route between Norfolk and Richmond at Virginia Diner. Starting in the ‘40’s, guests who arrived at the diner received blister-fried peanuts cooked in the kitchen to munch on while they waited for their food, and soon the welcome snack became a commodity folks clamored to buy.
Blister frying peanuts is singular to southeastern Virginia. Super extra-large peanuts (that’s the technical USDA grade) are soaked in water before getting tossed in hot oil where the water turns into steam and creates an ultra-crunchy nut with a deep brown color and textured, almost blistered-like, exterior. The Diner increased their roasting production, canning and selling the nuts to people who stopped in.
The Virginia Diner has passed through different owners since opening nearly 100 years ago. In the early 1970s, the diner sold to one of the restaurant’s vendors, Bill Galloway. He saw the small-scale peanut operation and immediately recognized its untapped potential. Under his ownership, he opened the diner’s commercial-scale peanut production and soon, peanut sales became this high-volume restaurant’s primary source of revenue.
“I find that most consumers in the market don’t initially think that there can be anything ‘special’ about a peanut, but watching them try our roasted nuts for the first time is always a fun experience as their eyes widen and they commonly say, ‘Wow, I never knew a peanut could taste this good!’” says Andrew Whisler, president and COO of the local Gerard Group, which owns Virginia Diner today. The Gerard Group bought the Virginia Diner in 2019, and has continued fostering the success of the brand with wholesale and nationwide distribution sending the premium peanuts to gourmet markets around the country. Additionally, they developed snack mixes and quality roasted cashews, almonds, and pecans, while sampling products and conducting market research with Diner visitors to perfect the products.
Whisler himself has spent his career in specialty foods ever since college when he completed his Entrepreneurship & Small Business Management degree with a senior capstone project in French pastries and chocolates. With the Virginia Diner, he says, “Our key to success and long-term sustainability has been putting out the best in all we do. From our raw ingredients and supplies down the great team members we employ; everyone and everything is top-notch and it shows in the end product and experience.”
In addition to introducing products that appeal to a new generation of shoppers, Whisler works to raise awareness about the tie between the renowned blister-fried peanuts and the small town diner. “A lot of people coming to the restaurant don’t realize that we’re manufacturing the peanuts just 20 yards behind the building,” he says. Likewise, many consumers outside of the Mid-Atlantic aren’t aware of the Virginia Diner’s humble story and the quality of southeastern Virginia peanuts compared to other mass produced brands on the market.
While he concedes that the gourmet food space probably isn’t the most profitable arena to play in, the pleasure of seeing people enjoying good food brings a smile to his face. “We give up a little bit to be in this space but the small pleasures in seeing that rush and joy that comes from enjoying new and high quality foods is why we do it,” he says.