Tom Taunton, vice president and general manager of Gurley’s Foods in Willmar, shows off an assortment of the roasted nuts that have helped put the company’s name on products that can be found coast to coast across the United States. (Tribune photo by Anne Polta)
The plant manager at Gurley’s Foods came back from a recent trip to North Carolina with a story for his boss, Tom Taunton.
The employee was on the road and needed to make a pit stop for water and refreshments, Taunton recalled. “He walked into a convenience store and there was an eight-foot section of Gurley’s candy and nuts and trail mix.”
From the two Gurley’s plants in Willmar, millions of pounds of nuts and candy make their way each year to stores and tables across the United States.
The company no longer makes the cookies that were one of its mainstays when it opened in 1953. But the sweet, the salty and the crunchy continue to be big business for Gurley’s, from the dozens of varieties of candy it bags and labels to the in-shell peanuts and sunflower seeds that are air-roasted via proprietary equipment and techniques.
“We sell them coast to coast,” said Taunton, vice president and general manager. “Our biggest market is the Midwest. The rest is interstate.”
Many people probably “have no idea” of the variety or volume of products that flow through Gurley’s each year, he said.
Take the standard peanut. Gurley’s roasts more than 6 million pounds a year of in-shell peanuts for sale and distribution. If you laid them end to end, they would reach from one coast to the other — not just once but five times, Taunton said.
Repackaging and relabeling of candy makes up a significant portion of the volume at Gurley’s Foods. The candy packaging operation takes place in what used to be the Gurley’s cookie factory. (Tribune photo by Anne Polta)
Then there’s the almond bark. The company sells more than 40 semi-tractor tankers of its almond bark during October, November and December each year. That equates to 1.6 million pounds of candy coating for homemade candy and coated pretzels.
At the candy rebagging plant, where cookies once were once baked by the hundreds in commercial ovens, Gurley’s now packages more than 50 varieties of candy under its own label, as well as private labels.
Founded as a locally owned company, Gurley’s has been through a handful of ownership changes over the past 30 years. Since May 2010 it has been owned by Hearthside Food Solutions, a contract baker and one of the largest independent bakeries in the U.S.
But from the roasted almonds and cashews to the containers of trail mix and packages of candy corn, much of the Gurley’s process remains in the hands of its 71 local employees.
Quality is a constant priority, Taunton said. “We know you can’t just have the lowest price point out there. We have to have national-brand quality on everything we do and put our best foot forward. In most cases our products will look and taste better than our competitors.’ It’s very important that we try to maintain that and excel.”
It starts with the raw products as they arrive by the truckload at the plant: cashews from Brazil or Vietnam, walnuts from California, pecans and peanuts from the American South, dried fruits and candy from dozens of suppliers.
Because nuts and dried fruit vary so much among regions, growers and even growing seasons, they must be extensively evaluated and tasted before going into a Gurley’s product, Taunton said. “It’s amazing the differences in a dried raisin.”
The company is especially proud of its nut-roasting operation, which accounts for about two-thirds of its annual revenue.
Peanuts in the shell are air-roasted, using proprietary equipment that suspends them in a vibrating stream of hot air to produce a clean, fresh-roasted flavor that Taunton said can’t be duplicated by continuous roasting.
Peanuts are the company’s “No. 1 item,” he said. “It’s a very unique roasting that our customers have grown fond of. We’ve built quite a brand with our peanuts. We get letters every day from people.”
The emergence of nuts as a good nutritional source of beneficial fats has led Gurley’s in recent years into new product lines such as roasted almonds and trail mixes packed with dried fruits or nuts.
“We’ve seen a huge growth in our trail mixes and heart-healthy products,” Taunton said.
The impact has been global, and is behind one of the company’s biggest challenges for the future: the supply, demand and cost of raw nuts.
“The health trend with nuts has taken off so much that it’s created a shortage of nuts,” Taunton explained. “Some of them have tripled in price. With pecans, walnuts and almonds, there’s a huge domestic demand.”
Middle-class consumers in China also have become a significant new market for nuts, he said. “They’ve purchased major portions of what we can grow.”
Growers are trying to catch up, but it can take five to six years for nut trees to become productive, and in the meantime prices for the consumer will likely keep rising, Taunton said. “That’s a challenge. That’s for all the nut companies.”
He believes Gurley’s will weather it, however.
“I think our advantage here is we have one-on-one relationships with our employees and our low overhead here,” he said. “We can produce more efficiently and can come in under the major price points. That is helpful. We just need to ensure that we stay that way.”
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