I've had the pleasure of touring an artisanal bread bakery, a small-batch coffee roastery, and even a Mexican tortilleria imbued with the warm, corny perfume of fresh-ground masa. But none of those places comes close to producing the olfactory euphoria of a nut-roasting facility.
"One of our neighbors was being moved into a nursing home after living down the street his entire life, and the thing he said he was going to miss most was the smell of roasting nuts," says Anne Hillson Kennedy, president of Hillson Nut Company.
For 83 years, Hillson Nut has been filling the air with the satisfying aroma of freshly roasted almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts and peanuts. This tightknit, family-owned-and-operated company sprang to life in 1935, when Robert Hillson opened up a nut roastery on Woodland Avenue. In 1956, he relocated the company to its present site, a hulking brick fortress at the terminus of West 71st Street in the Stockyards neighborhood.
Formerly a coal-fired power station for the Cleveland Union Terminal Railroad, the 14,000-square-foot structure features soaring 40-foot ceilings and an assemblage of machinery that looks to be from another era. A massive metal drum tumbles nuts over a hot flame, a serious-looking device mills nutmeat into creamy, smooth butter, a Rube Goldberg-like contraption spits out a stream of vacuum-sealed tins, and all around the room, workers sit at "picking belts" and closely inspect every single nut that comes in and goes out the door. Some employees have been with the company for more than 20 and even 30 years.
"When other nut companies decided to streamline and upgrade to digital processing equipment and automation to do away with people, we didn't," explains Hillson Kennedy. "We believe in people over machines."
Back in the day, most major cities had at least one local nut processor, where nuts from around the world would come in to be inspected, shelled, roasted, buttered, weighed and delivered to eager retail and wholesale customers. Back then, Hillson Kennedy adds, food was expensive to ship, people didn't do a lot of mail order, and nuts are a fresh, perishable product, all factors that fostered the rise of local nut roasters.
While Hillson sells raw nuts, the bulk of the products are roasted in wide vats of bubbling peanut oil, which produces a superior texture and flavor. The nuts are cooled, salted, weighed and packaged. Some pecans and almonds are roasted, salted and then bathed by hand in real melted butter. Any product can be custom roasted, salted, chopped, ground and/or mixed to a customer's exact specifications.
"We were artisanal and small-batch before that was even a thing," says Mike Rodemann, VP of operations. "Everything is still done by hand the same way it was done in the 1930s."
Hillson processes "hundreds of thousands of pounds" of nuts annually, with the majority of them heading to large wholesale accounts such as Dairy Queen. But you can also wager that the nuts that top or are mixed into your favorite local ice cream, bakery and candy products likely originate here as well.
"The thing that worked for my grandfather was the fact that there were lots of dairy farms around most cities and each of those dairies would make its own ice cream," Hillson Kennedy says. "He would bring the raw product here and custom-roast it to their specifications. They got it fresh, they got it fast, and they got it made to order exactly the way they wanted it."
Over the decades, Hillson has weathered hardships and fads like the recessions of the 1970s, the peanut shortages of the 1980s, the saturated fat-phobic diets of always, and the nut allergy epidemic currently sweeping the nation. Two trends that Robert Hillson likely never predicted is the sky-high demand for raw cashews by vegan foods providers and the rise of peanut-butter thirsty bakeries for dogs.
In addition to those heavenly scents emanating from the building, neighbors benefit from the small walk-up retail shop just inside Hillson's front door. Nut lovers can purchase a pound of jumbo cashews, a pound of toasted, shelled pistachios or five pounds of Spanish peanuts. At holiday time, tins of the company's famous Deluxe Mix crisscross their way all over the region and beyond.
"One of our customers asked me to pour our Deluxe Mix over his casket when he goes," says Rodemann, adding that the phone, fortunately, has yet to ring.
Like all perishable foods, nuts taste better when they're fresh. Digging into a bowl of fresh and freshly roasted cashews or almonds might be one of life's greatest joys, and we have companies like Hillson to thank for that.
"People ask me what's my favorite nut all the time and I say, 'Whatever is roasting right now,'" says Hillson Kennedy. "Because I smell it and then I have to have it."