C.B.’s Nuts

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a tale of beer, baseball and barrel-roasting

BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY ALLISON ARTHUR

 

The deep, earthy-sweet smell of roasted nuts rushes at me as I open the door to the CB’s Nuts retail store outside of Kingston. It portends the delicious things happening here, as do the brown bags and tins of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios lining the shelves.

Wife-and-husband duo Tami and Clark Bowen (Clark’s initials are the company’s namesake) grew into the 1,000-square foot space on Highway 104 and then grew out of it, moving their roasting operations down the road and keeping the original location as an expanded retail store. But just ten years ago, there was no bricks-and-mortar CB’s Nuts location, and the entire roasting operation consisted of one portable, hobbyist-size roaster.

Clark, a Wenatchee native, tasted his first fresh-roasted peanut at a Mariners-Orioles game in Baltimore in 2001, the year the Mariners pulled off a record-setting 116-win season. He finished the entire bag before the third strike was called to end the first inning. An obsession—other than baseball—was born. Then and there, Clark envisioned roasting and selling peanuts before Mariners games at Safeco Field and maybe making enough money to offset the exorbitant cost of beer inside the stadium. “That was truly the impetus,” Clark says. “Life was great.”

Clark bought a small barrel roaster, which he pushed to Safeco Field before the games. “We would run it right down First Avenue, on the sidewalk,” he recalls.
Clark was living in Edmonds, commuting every weekday to Seattle, where he ran an outdoor promotional company. It’s a job he fell into after high school, and though his heart wasn’t in it, he earned enough to afford baseball tickets, save for a home in Kingston, and finance his peanut hobby.

 

The barrel-roasted peanuts were a hit. The curious equipment and smell of roasting peanuts sidetracked fans streaming down the sidewalks to the stadium, and Clark sold more than enough to buy beer at the game.
Mutual friends introduced Tami and Clark in 2003. Tami was between jobs, in what she calls a “transition period,” and perhaps Clark was looking for a muse. The two started dating and Tami joined Clark at the ball field, immediately seeing the potential to expand.

“We had such broad appeal to people,” Tami says now. “Everything I’d ever heard about business is that you should know who your target market is. But I’m down there and realizing that there wasn’t really a demographic.”

With Tami helping manage the business, the Bowens started expanding in earnest. They bought an old fire station on Highway 104, which offered 1,000 square feet of roasting and retail space. Clark toured major peanut plants in the South and Southwest, and courted nut suppliers. Passion fueled his persistence, and success followed.

 

Along the way, Clark discovered another passion, one for antique roasting equipment. He learned that the slower, old-school way of roasting imparts more flavor and makes for a better product.

 

“Once I started to understand the various ways of roasting I was sold on that long process and I started to look at how you can scale. I just love the flavor profile that develops over that long period,” Clark recalls. CB’s Nuts can roast more quickly with modern machinery, but they’d lose the quality that sets them apart, the couple says. “It’d be a lot easier for us, but to me we’d lose so much of what we gain.”

It also happens that the slower roasting process is more thorough in killing bacteria, which was a boon to the company when the salmonella outbreak cracked the peanut industry in 2011. Sunland, a major peanut supplier and the source for the Bowens’ peanuts, was forced to recall their nuts and peanut butter; their doors are still closed today. The FDA paid CB’s Nuts a visit.

“The FDA comes in and says ‘Well, you have this product, you have to recall it.’ They urged us to do a voluntary recall,” Clark says. But it didn’t feel right to the Bowens, who hadn’t received reports of sick customers and have faith in their products. Not to mention, a recall would have devastated business.

 

“I thought, ‘How can we manage this?’ So we gathered all our evidence up over a weekend, sent pictures out, documents out, documented our whole roasting process,” Clark says now. “The FDA came back and said, ‘You don’t have to recall.’”

 

Now it’s early 2013: The original roasting room has been transformed into a large retail space, where visitors can learn more about the roasting process over a beer and snacks—including fresh-roasted nuts. Those visitors come from far and wide. “During the summer our guestbook reads Australia, Germany, all over the world. A lot of Canadians come from Victoria,” Clark says.

“We’ve felt like we’ve been bursting at the seams at this location for a long time, and it takes so much time to raise the money, to have the confidence, to make sure your sales are going to stay consistent, to take on another mortgage,” Tami says. “It’s a really exciting time for us.”

 

They aren’t just growing bigger; they’re also experimenting with different types of nuts. Apart from their popular roasted peanuts and peanut butter, CB’s Nuts roasts two kinds of pumpkin seeds: a traditional, white-hulled seed from organic growers in Oregon and California, and a hull-less variety they’ve dubbed “naked.”

 

The naked pumpkin seeds grow inside Styrian pumpkins, an heirloom variety long grown in Eastern Austria’s Styrian region. The seed grows without the crunchy white membrane other pumpkin seeds produce, and they remind me of a sunflower seed. CB’s Nuts contracts with a pumpkin grower in Oregon for the Styrians, and the farmer has dedicated additional acreage to these pumpkins this year. The Bowens lightly brine their nuts and seeds with sea salt before roasting, with the exception of their unsalted peanuts.

Their repertoire also includes pistachios and a boiled peanut kit; the latter came about when the couple visited the National Peanut Fest in Dothan, Alabama several years ago. Every vendor there had boiled peanuts; not a single one offered them roasted.

Apart from a failed attempt to source peanuts locally (“Juneuary” was not kind to peanuts, but they’ll try again this year), CB’s Nuts has been wildly successful. The company’s white pumpkin seeds are so popular they’ll be distributed nationally beginning this year. Given their current contracts, Clark estimates they’ll roast around 300,000 pounds of nuts and seeds this year, a big jump from his ballpark days, when he roasted 4,000 pounds a year, or their first year roasting in Kingston, 2007, when they roasted about 40,000 pounds.

But in case they somehow lose sight of the pastime that ignited a dream that fueled a business, the new retail space holds a relic that serves as a reminder: a fully restored Mariner’s dugout from the King Dome, where baseball great Alex Rodriguez sat when he wore an M’s uniform.

 

“To bring it full circle,” Clark says, “is pretty sweet.”

 

***You can find CB’s Nuts products at Whole Foods in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, and locally at Haggen, PCC Natural Markets, Metropolitan Market and Town & Country Markets, among others. Their retail store in Kingston is open 11am-5pm seven days a week; you can find their online shop at cbsnuts.com.

Megan Hill, though a native southerner, much prefers roasted peanuts to boiled. Read more from her at MeganHillFreelanceWriter.com

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