On Peanuts, with Martin Weeks, the Peanut Man

You could call Martin Weeks "the peanut man." The Mount Olive, NC native worked in textiles and industrial engineering for most of his life, but when his father passed away six years ago, he discovered an unusual new venture. Instead of enjoying leisurely rounds of golf with other retirees, he found himself cooking peanuts in his church's kitchen until late into the night. He followed in his father's footsteps and became head of the "Peanut Crew"—a 15-member group of the First United Methodist Church who cook and sell peanuts across the country and even overseas, purely as a means of helping others. They don't aim to woo consumers with catchy branding or eye-popping packaging, and you won't find them tweeting or Facebooking. They're just selling honest-to-goodness peanuts.  

They've raised $32,000 this year alone, and they've done it all through word of mouth—no easy feat in today's world of mass marketing and social media mayhem. Their peanuts are in great demand too, with fans overseas and in culinary hotspots like Portland, OR and New York City (read more about their notoriety here). At restaurateur Danny Meyer's NYC barbecue joint Blue Smoke, they're listed on the menu under appetizers, as "Jar of North Carolina Salt Peanuts." But the Peanut Crew isn't in it for the fame or the funds. All of the profits they earn from their peanuts sales benefit an array of charities, from ministries far and away, to prospective college students (there's a scholarship named after Martin's father), to folks who just need a little help paying their electric bill. Who knew peanuts could make you feel so warm and fuzzy? 

Where did the idea of fundraising by way of selling peanuts originate, and why peanuts? 
The organization started in 1965, by the minister of the church at that time. He started doing this after he got the idea as a fundraising project from another church, and he started out cooking the peanuts on a stove. There was a new education center in town and he wanted to raise money for it, and we're still raising money for that same education center today. My dad, Ellis Weeks, ran the peanut crew before me and when he died, I helped take over. It's like a family farm being passed down. 

How did people learn about your peanuts? How did the fundraising start? 
We don't advertise or use social media or anything. It's all word of mouth, so we must be doing something right. We mostly sell online, and we've shipped peanuts all over the U.S. and overseas. We also donate peanuts to golf tournaments, which has helped spread the word. 

Tell us about how you decide to spend the profits, and who receives the donations? 
The Peanut Crew has a monthly meeting to determine where the money will go, but it goes to all sorts of people. We give to anyone that is hurt, sick, needs assistance, or is starting up a new church. For example, we've given to Habitat for Humanity, and every year we give to a local organization called Area Churches in Action—which helps the community out with their bills and groceries. We also have a $4,000 Ellis Weeks & Shelton Boyd Scholarship, which we give to a local high school every year. So far this year we've given away $32,000.  

Where do you source your peanuts from and how do you prepare them? 
We buy the largest, highest grade of peanuts you can get, from Enfield, N.C, from A & B Milling. They come to us already shelled and we fry, and salt, and jar them in the church kitchen. 

What is something people might be surprised to learn about peanuts? 
When we cook peanuts, we'll cook 1,200 pounds of peanuts at a time (about 225 cases, with twelve 8 oz jars in a case). Our church's kitchen was renovated to accommodate everything, so now we have an overhead exhaust fan, three sinks, and three industrial cookers for frying. We fry the peanuts in 100 percent peanut oil. I usually start at about 4 in the afternoon and will cook until 9 or 10 at night. I smell like peanuts for three days after I've cooked them! 

What are your favorite way to eat peanuts? 
Growing up I used to go to my dad's house and eat a jar of peanuts almost every Sunday, and I ate them for a long time after I started cooking them, but I rarely eat them now. When I do, I just like regular salted peanuts. 

Do you have any plans to expand your peanut venture? 
I don't foresee it expanding a lot. Of course it's grown over the years and will probably continue to grow, but we really don't have a large enough crew to get much bigger. We do have some volunteers—we tend to get a lot of young volunteers, which helps us out, and you don't have to be a member of the church to volunteer. 

Did you grow up going to this church? How did you come to join the congregation? 
My dad was a Methodist and my mom was a Catholic. I was raised Catholic but I'm a member of the Methodist church now, and have been for about five years. 

What is the most rewarding thing about being on the Peanut Crew? 
I enjoy helping people. Any time you give to somebody, and to know you've helped them in some way, it's an amazing feeling. I've seen these guys touch a lot of people’s lives and do a lot of amazing things and 100 percent of the money we get goes back out, to help people in some way.   

120 East James St.
Mount Olive, NC 28365