A family-owned business along a busy stretch of Interstate 65 south of Montgomery that started with a handshake has been making delicious holiday memories for decades.
Priester’s Pecans began in 1935, and like many successful businesses, found its niche by giving customers what they wanted — in this case delicious Southern pecans. While shoppers love pecans year-round, Christmas is the most popular season at Priester’s, said siblings Ellen Ellis Burkett and Thomas Ellis, who began working there when they were 10.
“Late fall is the start of our busy season,” said Ellis, who runs Priester’s Shelling Plant in Fort Deposit. “In a typical year, we crack and shell about 2 million pounds of pecans. We primarily buy pecans from farms in Alabama, but also from other southern states. We ship fresh and roasted pecans, plus other nuts, all over the country. We also sell a lot of pecans to groups for fundraising projects.”
A short drive from the shelling plant is Priester’s Pecans retail store. The farm-style storefront, complete with rocking chairs, is a popular stop for tourists who can watch delicious Priester’s treats being made. But the store’s most popular attraction has to be dozens of free samples waiting to tempt travelers’ taste buds.
“People love the samples,” said Burkett, who runs the retail store that also handles mail orders for candies, pies and other treats. “Our most popular item is fiddlesticks. It’s a mixture of chocolate, caramel and pecans.”
However, pecan pies, sugared pecans, divinity, chocolate-covered pecans and other candies also are crowd pleasers.
The late Lee C. Priester of Fort Deposit started the business when he decided to sell bagged pecans at his gas station. When a customer requested the pecans be cracked and shelled, a booming business began.
Priester approached his longtime friend and business associate, Hense Reynolds Ellis, about a partnership. Ellis owned a local oil distributorship that supplied Priester’s service station and a sawmill. With a handshake and an initial loan of $200, Ellis became the silent partner in Priester’s Pecan Co.
In the 1950s, the men bought a Montgomery candy business and relocated it to Fort Deposit — a move that was the recipe for success.
Ellis and his wife, Ellen Hagood Ellis, eventually brought their two sons, Ned and John, along with their wives, May and Rose, into the business. The senior Ellis continued his involvement in the business until his death in 1965. Priester stayed active in making the company a success until illness forced his retirement.
The retail store moved from the old gas station to its current location in 1979. A fire in 1996 destroyed the business, but it reopened in temporary quarters within a month. A new store in the same location opened in 1998.
A fourth generation of the Ellis family now plays an important role in the businesses. Burkett’s son, Cliff, works in the retail store, and Thomas Ellis’ son, Stinson, works in the shelling plant.
In addition to providing pecans for Priester’s retail store, the shelling plant ships pecans and other nuts to food industry customers for baking and retail sales throughout the country.
So with all that gooey goodness around, what’s their favorite part of the business? Ellis and Burkett agree it’s their customers.
“We have lots of customers who stop here as part of their regular trip to the beach,” Burkett said. “Seeing customers over and over who make us part of their travels is special. Now, we see their children stopping here with their own children.”
Another thing that keeps customers coming back is Priester’s 100-percent satisfaction guarantee “if any item does not completely delight you.”
The store is located at Exit 142 on Interstate 65. It is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and in addition to the pies, candies and other treats, has a well-stocked gift shop and restaurant that’s open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s day and Easter.
During Christmas holidays, Priester’s opens satellite stores in East Chase Mall in Montgomery and Brookwood Mall in Birmingham. The company’s online sales through Priesters.com also play an important role in its success, shipping to all 48 continental states and around the world.
Pecan recipes are featured in this month’s Country Kitchen on Page 28. More recipes are available online at Priesters.com.