From a small confectionery store in Downtown Bloomington to America's Favorite Nuts
By Zach Dietmeier
Andy Shirk grew up with a dream of entrepreneurship and a career in finance. He didn’t necessarily envision his current role as the president of a family staple that has grown into a national brand, but he’s not complaining.
“I was really into commercial real estate; that is what I originally wanted to do,” Shirk says. “When that market crashed in 2008, my plans changed and set me on this course.”
Andy is now the public face of the third generation of Shirks to operate BEER NUTS® Brand Snacks.
Arlo Shirk acquired the Caramel Crisp Shop, a confectionary store (and eventually short order restaurant) on Main Street in Bloomington, in 1937. He sold popcorn, peanut brittle, caramel apples, and orange drink, but the special glazed “redskin” peanuts produced in the basement were always a favorite. By 1950, Russell Shirk – Arlo’s brother (who took over after Arlo’s untimely death) and Andy’s grandfather – started packaging “Shirk’s Glazed Nuts” for a local liquor store; Russell and potato chip distributor Eldridge Brewster agreed to change the name to BEER NUTS® in 1953, and the rest is history.
“Bloomington-Normal is a great place to live,” says Andy, whose father Jim Shirk still maintains ownership of the single 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility just east of downtown, where all production takes place. “I traveled away to boarding school in Pennsylvania, college in Ohio, to Chicago, and all over the world, but I knew from growing up here what an asset Bloomington-Normal is. Everything I needed and wanted was here.”
Today, BEER NUTS® accumulates 97 percent of its total sales outside of McLean County. The product is sold in all 50 states, and the enterprise has recently seen visitors and shipments to Canada, Japan, Australia, and South Africa.
“Our location geographically, with a well-educated and trained work force, allows our company to advance our goals while utilizing the human capital and local infrastructure,” Andy Shirk says.
He credits having major metropolitan areas within easily accessible range as an important asset, but there is also significance in not being in those locations directly.
“Chicago is valuable for us, but not being there is also valuable,” Shirk says. “Specifically for [the] food industry, we are able to access the resources of Chicagoland which results in more reasonable human capital costs and greater opportunity for our staff.”
BEER NUTS®, like many snack-centered endeavors, does much of its retail commerce in the months of November and December. The holidays are an annual reminder for Andy that the surrounding community continues to rally around his business.
“Our best sales people began in McLean County, have moved elsewhere, and share our products with their friends,” he says. “The people of Bloomington-Normal have a passion and pride for this community that drives us and other local businesses to succeed.”
While the wholesale side of the business drives BEER NUTS forward, the company continues to expand its retail operations online through their main e-commerce platform, BEERNUTS.com. From his perspective, Andy Shirk sees a bright and promising future, both for BEER NUTS® and for Bloomington-Normal.
“We have great resources here with great people who want more opportunity for this community. I think other companies looking at McLean County as a potential base should know that once you get here and get involved, the resources are here for significant growth.”