For years I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to explain to my friends and colleagues my affection for and attachment to peanut butter. Nearly all of them experienced the typical childhood phase during which peanut butter and the PB and jelly sandwich were staples. Eventually they moved on, developing what might be described as more eclectic and sophisticated tastes. Oh sure, my dietary choices expanded, too, but I remained loyal to peanut butter as the years went on. I occasionally made a casual effort to highlight the nutritional virtues of peanut butter in conversations, but mostly people just listened politely and dismissed my endorsement as the ravings of an addict.
The supermarket shelves offer an array of brands and varieties, smooth or chunky. Years ago I revealed my choice of what I considered the best brand. Those who agree with that judgment, individuals who are true PB aficionados, already are aware that we are now in a critical period, a period of major change on the peanut butter front.
Here is the story:
For those loyalists, Upstate New York—specifically, Fredonia—was the center of the peanut butter universe. The brand that was manufactured there was Red Wing, but even the most dedicated shoppers would probably be unfamiliar with that label. The company specialized in producing private-label brands. For example, the peanut butter sold by Wegmans, Tops and countless other grocery chains across the country was made in Fredonia. The admirable quality of the product: It was superior in taste and lower in price, a rare combination.
Price was never the deciding issue with me. It was the flavor and consistency that gave it unique status in our pantry. Words have seldom failed me, but I have never been able to adequately explain the features that have enabled me to develop this intense loyalty to Red Wing peanut butter. I have sampled the others, but my dedication has been unwavering.
Now, however, change has come to the peanut butter business. The Fredonia operation was acquired in 2013 by ConAgra, the food colossus. The company had a series of corporate owners, but with the ConAgra purchase it soon became apparent that the plants in Fredonia and Dunkirk would be closed. In addition to peanut butter, jams, jellies, mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressings and other products would be shuttered as well.
It is currently in the final phase of the painful process of closure, which has been projected to be completed by the end of May. By that time ConAgra will have eliminated about 425 Chautauqua County jobs. Most of the work is being shifted to a new factory in Buckner, Ky. However, the peanut butter manufacturing is being moved to existing plants in Streator, Ill., and Sylvester, Ga. It is worth noting that Peter Pan, one of the leading national brands of peanut butter, is also owned by ConAgra and manufactured in the Sylvester plant.
Faithful consumers who are aware of the change are asking themselves a critical question: Will it taste the same? The recipe will be the same, but will the final product in the jar be as they remember it? Doug Manly, the retired CEO of Red Wing, wonders about that himself.
“It is impossible to predict at this point because of two major variables,” Manly said. “The product will be made by different people using different machinery. I’m hoping they succeed.”
Skeptics insist peanut butter is just a commodity, with different brands having nearly identical flavors. For years the faithful have claimed that Red Wing is so superior it is easily distinguished from the rest of the field. With them, “nearly identical” doesn’t count.
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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