FORT DEPOSIT, Alabama – For more than 85 years, Priester’s Pecans has helped families across Alabama and beyond celebrate the holidays, and the Lowndes County company continues to write new chapters in its storied history.
The pecan processor and handmade candy operation is in the middle of its busiest time of the year, as more than 50 percent of its annual sales volume happens from October to December, said owner Thomas Ellis.
The pecan harvest happens in late fall as well, so the company is also busy cracking and shelling the pecans its buys from growers around the Southeast, for a total of about 2 million pounds per year.
Annual sales top $10 million, with a workforce of about 175 people during the holidays and 100 in the off season.
It’s a niche business compared to other pecan processors, but Ellis said the main focus for Priester’s is a premium product.
“We only buy the better pecans,” he said. “We don’t buy the commercial grade pecans like you see in the grocery store. Those are fine, but what we buy is a pecan that’s always just a step ahead and is a premium gift quality. They have more oil content, more flavor, and they make extremely good ingredients for our candy.”
Priester’s sells a wide range of pecans and pecan treats — all made in the kitchen at the company’s Fort Deposit headquarters — online, direct to consumer and wholesale.
“Our pecan pies are very popular, and our assorted nut tins are very popular, too,” Ellis said.
The company’s products are also sold at the Priester’s Pecans store in Fort Deposit, a familiar sight for travelers on Interstate 65 and a separate business owned by Ellis’ sister.
Priester’s traces its roots to 1935, when L.C. Priester, owner of a Texaco gas station in Fort Deposit, began harvesting the many pecan trees around his business and selling the nuts to his customers. As sales grew, Priester sought a partner and found one in Hense Reynolds Ellis, a Fort Deposit businessman and former mayor.
Hense Ellis was Thomas Ellis’ grandfather, and the family has built Priester’s into what it is today.
At the same time, they have been an integral part of Alabama’s farming and agribusiness communities. In addition to owning Priester’s, Thomas Ellis is a third-generation farmer who raises cattle, poultry and quarter horses.
Last year, he was named Alabama’s Farmer of the Year, and this fall he represented the Alabama Farmer’s Federation in the Sunbelt Ag Expo/Swisher Sweets Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest.
Ellis and his family have played an important role in promoting rural Alabama through their diverse business entities, said Brenda Tuck, Rural Development Manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce.
“Priester’s Pecans is an iconic brand that’s known across Alabama and across the U.S.,” Tuck said. “The company and its related enterprises have also been the source of valuable jobs and key investments that have driven growth in Lowndes County and the surrounding area.”
As for the future of Priester’s, Ellis is eyeing growth plans on several fronts, including a $600,000 investment in new equipment and a goal to raise sales through new product options.
“We’d like to start putting in more options for packaging our products so we can reach more markets,” Ellis said. “We also need some cold storage, so we’re coming up with a plan to expand our building.”
Ellis is considering the possibility of building a public cold storage facility and partnering with Alabama peanut producers, who are interested in such space for their products, too.
But for the next few weeks, Priester’s is focused on its busy holiday season, shipping pecans, candy and other goodies for holiday tables and gift-giving across the nation.
The most popular product is plain pecans in their natural glory. Another top seller is Fiddlesticks, a pecan, caramel and milk chocolate concoction created and trademarked by Priester’s.
There’s also honey glazed, sugared and all kind of flavored pecans, with so many options it’s hard for Ellis to name just one favorite.
“I know it’s a cliché to say, but I like them all,” he said.
(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)