Working for Peanuts
By Tracy Morin | Photography courtesy of The Peanut Shoppe
The Peanut Shoppe, a downtown Memphis institution since 1949, still thrives on Main Street as a labor of love for its owners and a snack-happy haven for hungry passersby.
Everyone recognizes the mascot of the Planters Peanut Company, the monocle-wearing, cane-toting Mr. Peanut. And, in Memphis, Tenn., several generations have been just as familiar with the retail store that Planters opened on Main Street back in 1949 to sell its famous roasted peanuts — one of many such outposts that cropped up around the country.
“They were in all major cities, and they were all called The Peanut Shoppe — at one time, around 200 of them,” explains The Peanut Shoppe’s current owner, Rida Abuzaineh. “Now, there are only six locations left in the country, including this one.”
Memphis once had another Planters store, owned by Jim Burge, but that closed at the end of 2017. Now, Abuzaineh runs the city’s last remaining location, and even that is under threat due to the changing face of downtown.
Though the Main Street shop has seen several owners at the helm since 1949, Abuzaineh (the fifth to take charge) has been the longest running. He officially assumed the business on Elvis’ birthday, Jan. 8, in 1993, and co-owns it with his sister-in-law, Suhair A. Lauck. His daughter, Nura, helps out while attending college, making the business a true family affair.
“I moved here from California to take over the business,” Abuzaineh recalls. “When we came to Memphis, Nura was four years old, running up and down the aisles and playing in the back room. Since then, I’ve been the operator, the manager, janitor, cashier — you name it, I did it!”
A civil engineer by trade, Abuzaineh may have had a lack of experience in the peanut biz, but he did have a food background as a corporate restaurant manager in California. Even more importantly, he was committed to giving the business his all. He started updating the offerings, expanding to chocolates, candies, and mixed nuts in addition to the peanut lineup. He also added unsalted versions of all salted products to appeal to different tastes and diets.
“Since I took over, I have added at least 70 new items, and the way we do gift items has improved over the years,” Abuzaineh says. “The quality of the product is the most important thing for me, because the customer deserves it. And when the customer leaves happy, he will come back happy again to you.”
It also helps that the unique retail space (a shotgun-shack strip of a shop at only eight feet wide and 62 feet deep) wafts the unmistakable smell of roasted peanuts and popcorn to pedestrians and trolley passengers on Main Street, leading to plenty of drop-in business as well as returning regulars. Abuzaineh notes that The Peanut Shoppe has even attracted attention from food-focused TV shows on the Food Network, Cooking Channel, and PBS.
No matter who comes in, Abuzaineh is ready with open arms, friendly chat, and, if needed, an education in the finer points of peanuts and the other delicacies he sells in-store.
“We have a lot of peanut lovers in Memphis,” Abuzaineh says. “But if someone walked in and said they wanted ‘regular peanuts,’ there’s no such thing! Everything has a name: in-shell, hulled, chocolate-covered, Spanish, spicy, garlic, smoky. The Virginia redskin peanuts are now No. 1 in sales; it’s hard to explain, but they’re the best I’ve tasted.”
Now with an online store to serve customers far beyond Memphis, The Peanut Shoppe offers a plethora of items, from mixed nuts and dried fruits to chocolates and saltwater taffy. To suit holiday shoppers, Abuzaineh has also added seasonal favorites, including imported Middle Eastern desserts like baklava.
This online presence helped when 2020’s pandemic-related shutdowns so deeply affected businesses in downtown Memphis and around the world. But Abuzaineh stresses that profits are not his only focus; he’s interested in connecting with the community and demonstrating the passion he maintains for his business to this day.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot in order to stay open,” Abuzaineh says. “We never close our store on time. But when you love your business and you love your trade, you build your own platform and show people who you are. You have to prove to them you are there for the community, and I did prove that.”
In the coming months, Abuzaineh will be facing another challenge — and calling on the community for its support — as The Peanut Shoppe’s building was purchased and will be undergoing construction after 2021 ends, leaving the small store’s future in question. Ideally, Abuzaineh’s family will be able to find a location downtown that will accommodate them, and customers will follow the longstanding business to its new address.
“This is the oldest landmark on Main Street, so when it’s closed, a part of history is over,” Abuzaineh explains. “We have the Downtown Memphis Commission and shop lovers coming in to help, and we need a miracle. But we ask everyone to not let The Peanut Shoppe die.”