An interview with Christine Epperson, President of the Virginia Diner
APC: This year the Virginia Diner will be celebrating its 85th Anniversary.
CE: The Virginia Diner is an important part of Virginia history and there are several special events being planned to mark the anniversary. There will be two open houses, one from April 25-27 and the major one will be from September 25-28. We will feature our peanut products and the food for which we have become famous – chicken, ham, biscuits and peanut pie. Special guests and elected officials will be in attendance. Make plans to attend the 85th Anniversary!
APC: The Virginia Diner started out as a small diner in a railcar in 1929, when did peanuts become a major part of the business?
CE: The Diner has been cooking and selling peanuts since the late 1940s. The peanut part of the business grew out of the Diner, as travelers requested peanuts be shipped to them. My parents bought the business in 1976. At that time, the mail order part of the business was mostly fourth quarter seasonal with everything still being done in the Diner kitchen utilizing many of the restaurant employees. It was in the mid-1980s before we had full time staff hired for the peanut side of the business. Today, we provide sample bags of peanuts for diners in the restaurant. The Diner is a whole entity, you can’t have one without the other.
APC: Is the mail order peanut business larger than the restaurant business, and when did this occur?
CE: The peanut side is about 80% of our sales now. Peanuts became a larger business in the mid-1980s. We printed our first "catalog" in 1984. Prior to that, we mailed letters with order forms and yellow envelope –sized cards with our products on them.
APC: What kinds of peanuts do you use and what are some of your top selling products?
CE: We use only Super Extra Large peanuts and we have a production facility for most of our products. The salted peanuts are our best sellers, followed by the double dipped chocolate peanuts and butter toasted peanuts.
APC: Are Virginia Diner peanuts sold nationwide?
CE: Yes, but pockets of the business are in large metropolitan areas. We sell to resellers (particularly on the west coast due to shipping costs), internet sales, corporate gifts, home buyers and fundraising groups.
APC: The American Heart Association has awarded your peanuts the "Heart-Check Food Certification". How has this impacted sales?
CE: This is very new and exciting and we are the only peanut company thus far to receive this. There has been a lot of interest at wholesale shows, but it is too soon to tell.
APC: Who developed your tag line, "A Legend in a Nutshell since 1929", which your firm has lived up to?
CE: My father, now deceased, was a visionary. He came up with the tag line, as well as first naming our product gourmet. He received a phone call from Moscow back in 1977. The ambassador wanted our Virginia Super Extra Large Salted Peanuts shipped to him for a banquet. My father said that if our peanuts were being served alongside caviar and champagne, then by God we were gourmet! He was also the first among the peanut companies to lead the way to the world wide web. We were on CompuServe in 1993, DOS, and then Windows 3.1.
APC: How has APC membership helped your business?
CE: Membership has given us a wonderful source of information. Helped us reverse the decision to keep peanuts out of the Boy Scout Jamboree in DC (where we sold). It provides a resource for vendors and to our customers. Membership also provides us with educational materials, and funding for the Ag schools which assist us with various projects. And it has helped us prepare a response regarding peanut allergies in the schools when we had a school division threatening to not use our fundraiser.
APC: Anything else you would like to add?
GC: We are the oldest continually run roadside Diner in Virginia.
For more information, visit: www.vadiner.com