By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
In 1942, a Decatur family by the name of Hawthorne started a seasonal company in their garage which was located near Delano Park. It was called Tennessee Valley Pecan Company, and their pecans were known throughout the Southeast. David Armistead, who grew up in Decatur and spent most of his career as a newscast director and video producer in Anniston, as well as Atlanta, had a dream of buying the company someday. In 2011, David, his brother Steve, and a group of investors located in Nashville were able to do just that, and the result is a charming shop in historical Decatur that also has an international online following.
When you walk into the store, located at 806 Bank Street, you are immediately greeted with sentimental sights and smells from a by-gone era. If you are a Baby Boomer, you are going to feel right at home, and if you are a Millennial, you will as well. If you happen to be a kid, there is a tree house which is the imaginary abode of Elliot the Squirrel, the mascot of Tennessee Valley Pecan, who has not changed a bit since he was “born” 76 years ago. You can leave a note for Elliot, and he will send you a postcard thanking you for coming and apologizing for “not being at home.” There is also a desk and play area for kids right next to Elliot’s house.
When David and crew moved in, they discovered an old rum-runnin’, bootleggin’ tunnel which had been used during Prohibition. It is sealed over with Plexiglas, but you can see down the ladder to the place where a brisk business was once run. There are vintage signs, lights, furniture, display cases, and photos which “tell the story.” There is a framed front-cover page from the Decatur Daily dated July 26, 1942, the same year Tennessee Valley Pecan opened for business. There is history recorded there, ranging from discussions on Nazis, Russians, segregation, who is ill, and who just back from vacation.
So, the ambience is attractive, but what about the pecans? Oh, my, they are truly delicious. David gets them from several growers in South Alabama, and they are just fresher, moister, and most of the time larger than anything you are going to get in a store. They are slightly more expensive, but then, you get what you pay for!
The pecan flavor choices are plentiful and whimsical. There are plain ones, honey glazed, chocolate covered, dusted in cinnamon, raw, roasted, or dusted in “key lime pie dust.” All of them were scrumptious, and the members of what is affectionately referred to as the “Nut House” are generous when it comes to offering samples. There are small pecan pies, jellies, pickles, pralines, T-shirts, and an educational board which shows all the kinds of pecans grown for consumption. I had no idea that there were so many!
Then there are the coffees. The flavored ones available by the cup or bag are Bushytail Brand (in honor of Elliot the Squirrel) and include Southern Pecan, Caramel Pecan Roll, and Bourbon Truffle. By the way, there is method in the madness of Elliot’s name. The lion’s share of the pecans sold by Tennessee Valley are what is known as the Elliot variety, hence the name. Other coffees include Ethiopia Yiracheffe and Caramel Pecan Log.
I spent a good while talking to David and getting a sense of what it is he wants to accomplish besides getting pecans into people. He is aware that in spite of an era where one can communicate instantly all over the globe, people are hungry for relationship. “We are building a tribe,” he said. By that he means that he wants to return to the principles that made American commerce great in the first place, the “roots of retail”: stellar customer service, developing a brand that is based in the community but has global potential, and maintaining a personal touch, whether you walk in the shop or call in from Ireland.
David also wants employees of Tennessee Valley Pecan to believe in the same mission. “During the holidays, we ship out 300-400 boxes per day, and we want our customers to know that they are important to us, no matter their address,” he said. “We have fun,” David said, and in the hours I both interviewed them and sat happily working on the article, I can confirm that they do.
David’s desire is to become a destination place to shop, and I have confidence that his dream will come true. If you want to see and taste what I am talking about, get on down to Tennessee Valley Pecan Company as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did!