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Pistachios in a scoop

Keith Culverhouse ’46

Nut Merchant

I went to Swarthmore during World War II, so it was a time like no other. The biggest thing I learned was the questioning and research needed to make a good (you hoped) decision.

I wasn’t sure that I was gay at the time, and even dropped out of pledging a fraternity due to my uncertainty. (Even after my sexual orientation was clear, through the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed not to affect my career.) I took a year off from Swarthmore to go to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) and had a summer job in the Saturday Evening Post’s art department.

I realized those were the people I wanted to work with: great, friendly writers and designers ... plus, I could file all those original covers by Norman Rockwell. So when my family moved to New York, I went along and took night courses at Columbia in promotion and advertising to get a job at a small agency. That opened a door in the new ABC network’s presentation department in the late ’40s, and so began 20 years in the business. (The late Robert Kintner ’31 was ABC’s president when I joined.)

Eventually, I grew tired of the long hours and lack of new challenges. When my partner, Ed Petty, and I heard about a colonial-type shopping complex underway in Lahaska, Pa., it piqued our interest. Ed always was interested in foods—nuts, fruits, candy-coated popcorn—and I remembered advice my father had received during the Depression: “Get into the business of something people will always need.”

That’s how we came up with The Nut Kettle, a unique, top-quality shopping experience featuring all things nuts, made fresh in the on-view kitchen. There was a lot to learn—roasting, purchasing, packaging, tracking sales, store layouts, interior design, cost-control, etc.—and we opened in Lahaska’s Peddler’s Village the summer of ’69.

With hard work, The Nut Kettle grew to four stores. However, we had purchased a small townhouse in California, as both Ed’s and my parents lived there. So we sold off or licensed the originals and added a wholesale component by moving to Palm Springs, where there was good local and national potential at lower costs of operation. It was almost like beginning again, but this time, our unique caramel nut popcorn was the hit. Retail grew quickly and became the favorite of many famous folk who wintered in Palm Springs. Our first Neiman Marcus order was for our chocolate-pecan popcorn, which resulted in big sales, especially at Christmas. I then pulled out my presentation skills and sold them five more flavors.

After about nine years of this growth, our next move would mean major expansion, money, and stress. With age 65 coming, I decided it was time to sell and retire to Canada. Looking back, I’m proud to have had a multifaceted career that encouraged me to get into something new and grow it, constantly learning and applying what I learned.

Best of all was doing it with my partner, Ed, who died in 2009. We were together for 46 years and never made an overt issue of being gay, just ran our personal and business lives on a strict policy of friendliness and honest dealings. Making money was never the goal of our life—the Quaker ethic was.

Together, with our own hands, we created something unique, something that gave pleasure, and something that helped people. (The college student we hired in the Peddler’s Village store made The Nut Kettle his whole life: He bought it and then, upon retiring, sold it to his employees and moved with his wife to Myrtle Beach. Sadly, a 2016 fire destroyed the Peddler’s Village building and the last remaining Nut Kettle.)

My advice: In making the big decisions, balance what you hope with what you have learned, and go for it. If it’s not now, it never will be.


Next: Presley Brown ’52