Almost daily, Dixie Grace sees people transform when they taste her boiled peanuts, which she makes out of a small kitchen at Belleville Bites, a co-op restaurant just north of Newark. First there’s the skepticism (“A boiled what?”), then curiosity (“OK, I’ll try”), then confusion (“How do I eat this?”), then a re-centering as they take a bite (“Alright, alright”), then, typically, amazement (“This tastes incredible.”)
The boiled peanut. If you’ve been down South, you’ve seen roadside stands or trucks set up in parking lots. You might’ve tasted them and, if you’re like me, were unimpressed with a wet, hot, mushy mess of a nut.
That’s not what Grace makes. She takes a high-quality peanut (from an American farmer whose name she keeps close to the vest), puts them through a multi-step process refined by her 20 years as an engineer, then serves them with a variety of house-made spice blends that amplify the experience. You can get them (and spice blends and boiled peanut hummus) at the Jersey City Farmers Market or via takeout or delivery at Belleville Bites.
Though boiled peanuts are a global snack, it’s fair to say they haven’t quite caught on in the Northeast. For Grace, who typically sees lines outside her market stands, that’s an opportunity—to bring a nutritious, gluten-free, vegan snack to a region that’s not familiar with all it can be. Acquainting New Jerseyans with the boiled peanut, though, is now routine for Grace.
“Most folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line have never tried a boiled peanut,” she says. “They don’t even understand. They’re reading the words and it’s not registering. They just don’t understand because we’re so used to dry roasted, that’s all we know, right? ‘Come on over, child.’ ‘I don’t like peanuts.’ ‘It doesn’t taste like a peanut. Come on over. Just come.’ Then they’ll try. And it’s not really even a hard sell to be honest with you, because I’m giving out samples. But so they come, they taste it and they’re like, ‘What? It looks like a peanut, but it doesn’t taste like it,’ and it’s all in shock. Then they say, ‘I’ll take a thing, give me something.’ I’m like, I have a 97% conversion rate. The moment they taste, they’re like, ‘I’ve never had this before.’ They put it in their mouth and I can almost time it when they’re experiencing the layer. You can literally almost time the reaction by the time it hits them. And then they start and it’s one after the next one, after the next one, and they can’t even believe.”
Grace was once one of the many northerners unenlightened to the boiled peanut. But on a trip to visit her sister in South Carolina, she pulled over at a boiled peanut stand and gave them a go. They were delicious, and not seeing any available upon her return to NJ, recognized an opportunity.
Thing is, Grace had been a successful planning engineer for two decades, taking jobs from Seattle to work on the Dreamliner 787 for Boeing to Qatar, where she worked on the infrastructure for the World Cup, and many places in between. But that life seemed to run its course, Grace says.
“I was happy until I wasn’t happy anymore. And it was kind of one of those periods of, well, lord, what do you want me to do now? What am I gonna do now? And having my own, my mom always told me, always make sure you have your own.”
So she thought why not peanuts? It all came together so quickly, Grace recalls—an encounter with a friend who was working on starting a commissary kitchen, the words almost escaping her mouth, “You think I could boil peanuts in there?” having never boiled peanuts before, the shipment of 1,200 pounds of raw peanuts, trademarking her name, researching how to boil peanuts, testing out recipes, etc.
Though the business formed quickly, Grace took her time refining the method.
“When I decided to do this, I had to do my research because it is not just boiling a peanut, right? People say, ‘Oh, you put it in the pot and you go on about your day.’ That’s not true because there’s a process to it. There’s the washing of it, there’s the soaking of it, there’s the brining of it, there’s the cooking. And when I tell you I researched, I watched every video from people from Louisiana to Tennessee to everybody that boiled a peanut.
“I [watched] every YouTube video I could because it’s not a natural thing for me. I honestly don’t even like peanuts. Like, I would never go to the store and buy a bag of peanuts. So when I started doing my research, then I started figuring out, well, that old timer guy has been boiling peanuts for 70 years. How does he do it? Versus, I’m an engineer, right? So I’m trying to solve the problem, and I pulled a little bit from everybody all over the country. And I came up with this technique. It’s consistent, it’s layered. And I can store it for three months in the freezer or on the shelf for 10 days.”
Grace boils peanuts in three varieties: traditional salted, hot and spicy, and brown sugar. You can just pop it in your mouth, shell and all, for a little crunch; or you can teeth ‘em out, like edamame, sucking the shell of its seasonings. Those seasonings include honey garlic, everything bagel, Indian curry and more, or you can add hot honey for a savory, velvety and spicy bite. Her following at the Jersey City market has led to the creation of the off-menu JC seasoning: Hot Indian curry, everything bagel seasoning, honey garlic, cowboy rustic and garlic.
It’s a flavor bomb, for sure, but the JC mix isn’t overwhelming; you taste the curry and garlic foremost and the background seasonings sort of meld together to create an interesting, vibrant sensation. I couldn’t stop eating these, personally, but dipping into batches from other seasonings displays how variable the experience can be with this humble nut.
“And so what happens is that the topper changes the mouthfeel, it changes the texture, it changes the experience because now you’re able to pull the flavor out of the bean. You can add honey garlic, and it’s completely different in the first bite that you took with another flavor.”
It might take a nut or two to get used to the consistency; not because it’s off-putting, but because many of us are used to crunchy peanuts. It’s akin to a chickpea, but with a lot more flavor. That similarity inspired Grace to make hummus out of leftover peanuts. The hummus—available in pink salted, everything bagel, and hot and spicy flavors—is a triumph; it’s lighter than traditional hummus and, as with the whole nut, takes to the added flavors exceptionally well.
By selling the whole peanut and using extras for hummus, there’s very little waste in Grace’s operation—in fact, the brine used to boil the peanuts can be used as a natural fertilizer. Combined with the fact that boiled peanuts are good for you, it’s kind of slam-dunk product, and though she just opened last year, she’s already thinking about how to franchise out to other entrepreneurs. Grace says she also opens the door and recites her elevator pitch for Shark Tank to her dog when she comes home, and to be honest, this is the kind of business, and Grace is the exact kind of entrepreneur, you see on that show.
In short, the idea for boiling peanuts may have come together quickly, but Grace’s vision for it is far-reaching. She’s optimistic, something of which she learned the value early in life.
“I’m the daughter of a single parent. My mom, we were homeless for the first 16 years of our life. It was really hard. My mom raised me literally by herself with no family. I didn’t have babysitters, nothing. We had no uncles, aunts, grandma, nobody helped her raise me at all. But we somehow made it through life. And no matter how hard it was, my mother’s a very positive person. And so she taught me at a very young age, she told me this one thing. She says you have to look at life like a sifter. We were probably like sleeping on a bus or something at the time. You take a sifter and you pour the flour through and you shake it and all the good flour falls to the bottom and all the crap stays at the top. She says throw the crap out and only deal with the good. And so that taught me kind of how to just find the good, find the God in everything. Like, find the goodness in it. There’s something there when you start to look at life like it’s not punishment, but what am I supposed to be learning from this experience that I can take with me and move on?”
Grace hopes to share the optimism with others through franchising (and getting her peanuts into movie theaters, stadiums and the like), but also has aspirations to find a way to provide capital for other small startups—what could exist if only more people had funding to make their ideas into a reality, she opines.
“I had heard this word philanthropist when I was a little, little kid. And I saw what they did, like giving money away and Secret Santas. And immediately I said to myself, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a philanthropist,’ because I just naturally love to give things away. But to be able to give away a lot, you gotta have a lot, right? So I think in the back of my mind all the time, I’m like, what can I do that will get me the money that I need so that I can give it away,” Grace says.
The thing is, whatever success Grace has from her North Jersey outpost, whatever Dixie Grace’s Boiled Peanut Co. turns into, it’s likely not because of the peanuts. I mean, the peanuts are great and that’s what people will buy, but listening to Grace speak earnestly and colorfully about her mission in entrepreneurship and how people react to the product she’s selling, it’s clear there’s something more going on here.
“The boiled peanut has such a legacy to it and it’s beautiful because you get people in there from India that are like, my grandmother makes these, I’m like, are you serious with this? How are you that touched? And then they would bring their mothers in there, like, when they come to visit, and they come and they taste them and it would just warm my heart to see so many people enjoying a product that they either grew up on or were newly discovering.”
To taste Dixie Grace Boiled Peanuts, order from Belleville Bites at bellevillebites.com.