In 1925 the Columbus-based Tom Huston Peanut Company began selling single-serving packages of roasted peanuts nationally. As of 2006, its more than 1,300 employees in 4 states produce 20 snack products, which are sold in 43 states under the company’s red triangular logo.
The man behind the logo was inventor John Thomas “Tom” Huston, a Columbus resident whose creations included a mechanical peanut sheller and a roaster for shelled peanuts. Huston literally earned peanuts for his efforts; local farmers in need of his inventions paid him with portions of their harvests. In 1926 Huston patented a narrow glassine package that he could fill with this local crop. Emblazoned with a triangular label that read “Tom’s Toasted Peanuts,” Huston began selling the packages to independent distributors.
Four years later Huston, as head of the Tom Huston Peanut Company and known as “The Farmer Boy Who Became Peanut King,” was featured in Time magazine. He would not be king for long. The depression, coupled with losses in his frozen peach business, caused Huston to lose his business in the early 1930s. In 1932 the bank that owned the company hired Walter Richards as president, who with other investors ran the company until 1966, when it was bought by General Mills. In 1970 the company’s name changed to Tom’s Foods.
From the company’s earliest days until the early 1940s, it benefited from George Washington Carver’s scientific research on peanut growing and processing. Carver was an unpaid consultant to Tom’s, and some of Tom’s employees assisted Carver as well by providing him with peanut fungi samples.
Though Tom’s has branched out into other types of snack foods over the years—among them potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, cream-filled cookies, pastries, and candy bars—toasted peanuts are still one of its best-selling products. As a result the company is one of the Southeast’s top purchasers of peanuts, turning them into such vending-machine staples as peanut-butter crackers. While other companies focus on larger, multiple-serving bags of snacks, Tom’s concentrates on smaller, single-serving foods that can be tucked away in briefcases or pocketbooks.
About half of the company’s employees work on its thirty-eight-acre campus in Columbus, where three plants produce its candy, peanut, baked-goods, and cracker products. Tom’s Chips are produced at its plants in Perry, Florida; Corsicana, Texas; and Fresno, California. In all the company’s facilities, including warehouse space, exceed 1 million square feet.
Between 1983 and 2005 the ownership of Tom’s changed hands four times. In 1983 the company was purchased by a British firm, Rowntree-Mackintosh; in 1988 it was purchased by a group of local investors; and in 1993 it was purchased by Heico Acquisitions. Under Heico the company failed to turn a profit for a decade.
Snack-food giant Lance Incorporated bought the company in October 2005 for $37.9 million. Six months before the sale, Tom’s Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after defaulting on more than $60 million in debt. In fiscal year 2004 the company lost $6.8 million on $181.4 million in revenue. The company’s revenue was $195.7 million the year before.