Bullish on Boiled Peanuts

Published 5:50 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Campobello business owner goes gourmet with simple Southern snack

When it comes to boiled peanuts, Will “Bear” Tyler is both simply complex and complexity simplified.

Bear is a big guy with great hair, an Army vet, a computer programmer, a barber, an idea guy, an entrepreneur who has recently turned his attention to boiled peanuts, that simple Southern snack of taking whole peanuts in the shells and boiling them in salty water.

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They are dripping wet, messy to open, can be a little slippery and slimy, salty and faux-meaty, like most other legumes, a family of veggies that includes soybeans, pinto beans and peas.

Traditionally, you make them yourself or buy them from a roadside stand. They can be eaten hot or cold. Because the hulls are biodegradable, you can just throw them out the car window as you drive, eat and drip salty water on your shirt.

To the purest, boiled peanuts are seasonal: a summer snack. To the ultra-purest, they are “green,” “fresh,” “new crop,” or never dried, and hard to come by.

For those desperate for a boiled peanut fix in the off-season, you can buy them canned from the grocery store.

But that is Old South boiled peanuts.

The peanuts made by Bear’s Bullhded Peanut Co. are “A Southern Staple Reinvented,” just one of the catchy marketing phrases he’s come up with.

Since he started the business at the beginning of 2018, Bear has developed an ever-changing menu of boiled peanuts with creative names and even-more creative recipes, or “profiles,” as he calls them. Some of his creations include All The Ways (mustard, chili and onions), Rick Flares (bloody marys), Kill Dills (dill pickle), June Bugs (spicy cherry cola), Bear Claws (charred oak, bourbon and hot peppers), Warpaint (spicy Cheerwine and basil), Pot Liquor (collard greens and thangs), The Klink (German-style with spicy mustard, onions and sauerkraut), Hot Snakes (Cajun heat) and Bull Nuts (sweet tea and bourbon).

Two of the most recent releases are Market Salsa (garden fresh) and Greyhounds (grapefruit freshness). The more popular profiles are Southern Draws (salty and savory) and Salty Dawgs (five-salt blend).

“One year ago, I wanted to bring together my passions for business, design and culinary [arts],” Bear says. “I knew that I wanted the product to be a simple idea, so I chose something that had always given me comfort.

“Every day, I create. From new business, to relationships with vendors, to flavor profiles, to media design.

“All peanuts start off exactly the same: peanut, salt, water. I add basic ingredients at specific points after that to produce a reinvented Southern staple. Nothing I use is a new idea, I just thought of how to rearrange them to produce the profile that I am looking for.

“People disbelieve that a peanut can be prepared, presented and served up in a different way than the normal. The thing that I always hear is that I have a new way to enjoy a classic. I pull from the things that I love in food and make attempts to translate that into a peanut profile. From salty, to sweet, to spicy, to a combination of all three. The main goal is to create a product that can be enjoyed by all.”

Another Bear original is, “At Bullhded, what we do is simple. Take parts salt, peanuts, mix it with grit, and the result is a Southern staple cooked to perfection.”

FYI, “Bullhded” is not a typo, but rather another bit of marketing creativity that came about when Bear was trying to come up with the wording for a vanity car tag.

Bear spends a lot of time working his craft in his parents’ old mustard-making building on the Campobello property where he grew up on. It’s out there in the countryside, not so easy to find, but when you smell peanuts in the air, you know you’ve arrived.

For many hours a day — and often throughout the night — he’s prepping the dried Georgia peanuts with exotic marinades of locally sourced ingredients and flavorings.

Five-gallon buckets sit around the commercial kitchen, full of peanut mixings. A little hot pepper, a lot of pink Himalayan salt, maybe some Cheerwine soda pop, a beer or two. He strives for his profiles to have layers of flavors.

His vintage turntable stereo system is loud and keeps him company with high-energy hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll and music that is hard to define. The prep table is crowded with herbs, bottles and tools of the trade.

He has his two giant cooking kettles simmering with hundreds of pounds of peanuts. During the summer months, it’s hot in there, and no amount of air conditioning is going to rid the room of the humidity.

Sweat is just part of the business plan.

When he’s got a big order or he’s working on a new “profile,” most batches of boiled peanuts take about three days of processing. The end product is ziplock plastic bags with a pound of peanuts, plus a pepper or grapefruit slice.

Because boiled peanuts are very perishable, timing is vitally important. He has to cook the peanuts to meet the demand, be it a high school football game, community festival, the Landrum Farmers Market or an order for a special event. They sell for $5 per bag, but he sometimes sells them for $6 and includes a bottle of water.

At 46 years old, Bear has a new beginning with Bullhded. 

A native of Campobello, he left the South at 15 and went on to earn an undergraduate degree in computer science and a master’s degree in business, and spent a lot of years in the tech industry “typing in dark rooms,” he said. In 2007, he came home, looking for a “low-tech” change.

One of his enterprises was a high-end barber shop just for men, which included cigars and bourbon in addition to a shave and a haircut.

At the end of 2017, he thought about boiled peanuts as a career choice.

Before then, he had only eaten boiled peanuts. He had never cooked them.

To learn how, he went to the library. Luckily, he had access to his parents’ industrial kitchen and equipment that had been used to make mustard many years ago.

In the early stages of profile development, Bear would make batches of boiled peanuts and then give them to community groups, such as firemen, for taste testing and feedback. He also called upon friends, family and local chefs to give input.

He readily admits that at the time, he “didn’t know how to cook,” but he was constantly brainstorming.

“Bulls don’t ask, we do,” is another of Bear’s original marketing phrases.

“I grew up eating [boiled peanuts],” Bear says. “Now making them is a different story.  A lot of trials, a lot of errors and a lot of hours.”

One friend and fan of Bear and his boiled peanuts is Stuart Partin, who was once the head chef at Newman’s Restaurant at the Orchard Inn in Saluda.

“I met Bear at the farmers market. He was parked next to me his first day,” says Stuart, who often sells ready-made gourmet foods at the Landrum market. “Bear is really crazy about boiled peanuts. He takes his peanut business really serious, from marketing to recipe creation.

“He is an interesting dude: He was in the Army, then a computer engineer, now he is a barber and a peanut chef. I never get bored when we talk.

“I eat his newest creation every week. I like the Hot Snakes the best. I really like Bullhded Peanuts because Bear is doing a great job adding a modern twist to the classic Southern staple. I think it fits in to what is going on with the food world. Everybody is pushing the envelope, trying to make things better and more adventurous.

“I think he is successful because he is really passionate about boiled peanuts. He uses fresh local ingredients to make the special flavors.”

In all likelihood, it is Bear’s commitment to the local community that has enabled him to double his business in recent months. Whenever possible, he uses locally sourced ingredients, such as garlic, herbs and veggies. And, despite his savvy online marketing with his website and Facebook page, his best marketing has come in the form a handshake, he says.

When he’s not in the kitchen cooking, he is usually out and about the Carolina Foothills networking his business at every level, from garlic farmers to school authorities.

“I have made every attempt to source all of the ingredients in my peanut profiles from local farms,” Bear says. “It’s easy to shelf buy many products without any thought, but it takes effort to source everything that you need to run a business on the day to day. For me, it’s salt, vegetables, fruit, paper products, etc. I spend a solid day buying and driving to get what I need to produce the week’s batches of peanuts. I am going the extra mile, and the people with whom I do business with are doing exactly the same.

“This business has to give back locally. It’s a circle that travels. I’m here to serve the people of Campobello and Landrum.”

As school and football were coming back into session in late summer, Bear found that he had great sales — selling out — at Landrum High School’s football games.

As a small-business owner, Bear keeps his ear to ground where the peanuts grow, and his head above the boiling water, looking at the big picture and attending to the small details. He talks the talk, boils the peanuts and shakes the hands that feed him.

He is one of those rare people who can say: “I worry about here and now, and three months out.” And in the next breath say: “I do it now. Every week is a crapshoot.”

One thing is for sure: he’s all-in when it comes to boiled peanuts.

“I live my dream every day,” Bear says. “I wake up with a smile and go to bed tired. I grind every day to keep my dream going forward.” •

Steve Wong is a writer living in the peach orchards in Gramling, South Carolina. He can be reached online at Just4Wong@Gmail.com.