Going nuts by Chris Worthy
11 February, 2014After 75 years, Cromer’s P-nuts is still a must-go destination for party supplies
Carolette Cromer Turner admits to a few nuts in her family tree. After all, she is in the peanut business.
As the third generation owner of Cromer’s Peanuts, Turner embraces her family’s legacy and her grandfather’s sense of humor. In 1935, Julian Cromer began what would become an integral part of Columbia’s history.
“My grandfather was a farmer in Lexington,” Turner said. “(Farmers) would fill up their trucks with produce and bring it over to Assembly Street. That block between Lady and Gervais, and maybe even one more up and one more down, they put sheds up.”
But Cromer soon came to specialize in peanuts, something that caused Turner’s grandmother to question the family’s survival.
“I remember her telling me — how would he sell enough peanuts for us to live?” she said. “He was an astute businessman with a great sense of humor.”
When a competing peanut salesman declared his wares the best and Cromer’s the worst, a slogan was born.
“All day long that man would holler out, ‘Don’t buy Cromer’s peanuts. Mine are the best,’” Turner said. “(Cromer) tore a piece of cardboard off and put a sign up: Worst in town.”
Soon, Cromer guaranteed his assertion.
Cromer’s grew as customers began to ask for popcorn and vending supplies. Much of Turner’s childhood is connected to her family’s business, which she recounts with typical Cromer humor.
“We did our roasting and boiling,” she said. “I can remember us selling our peanuts across this warm metal bin. As a child it always reminded me of a casket.”
As the business grew physically, adding one building after another, Turner’s father added more vending supplies, beginning with 1,000 pounds of bubble gum, much to Julian Cromer’s chagrin.
“My grandfather said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll never sell it,’” Turner said.
But they did sell it and the next 1,000 pounds as well.
At one time, Cromer’s had a store at Dutch Square Mall, complete with monkeys. It was typical of Julian Cromer, who loved the attention the store received but who also loved oddities in general. He owned geese, peacocks and a talking parrot.
As Turner celebrates 75 years of Cromer’s Peanuts, she is returning the business to its roots, even if in a high-tech way.
“We are going back more to our core products: peanuts, popcorn, candies,” she said. “With the advent of the Internet and the big box stores, we are constantly changing to stay in business. You have to evolve.”
Part of that evolution is found in online sales, but the Columbia store remains fun for local customers who make it a priority stop for birthday party and tailgating supplies.
Even before they walk in the Huger Street store, customers know they are in for something a little out of the ordinary. A sign outside declares, “Many nuts pass through these doors.”
“One day, we had a disgruntled customer,” Turner recalled. “He came in and said, ‘I take issue with what you have on the door.’”
Turner’s employee simply replied, “Sir, we’re in the peanut business.”
But most customers get the joke and appreciate the family’s wit. Occasionally they even surprise Turner, such as the time a woman entered the store on behalf of her deceased father.
“She said, ‘His last request was that I pick up his ashes and go to every one of his favorite places in Columbia,’” Turner said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to bring him inside?”
The customer’s reply? “No, he’s fine in the car.”
Turner clearly has the business in her blood. She makes a point of working the sales floor as many days as she can and she finds family not just in those who share her name. Many of the company’s employees have been around for years, some for decades. The employee in charge of boiling peanuts has been part of the Cromer’s family for more than four decades.
Whether in the store or on line, Turner wants customers to laugh and find moments of pure joy. She saw that attitude recently in an older couple who delighted in Cromer’s barrels of old-fashioned candy.
“They spent $52 on loose candy,” Turner said. “They were like 5-year-olds. They had so much fun.”
And that makes the worst peanuts something worth savoring.
“It should be a place that makes you feel good,” Turner said.