Mound City Shelled Nut Co.’s commitment to kosher helps underscore company’s success

Mound City Shelled Nuts

By Cheryl Baehr Special to the Jewish Light

Byron Smyrniotis never planned to get into the full-time nut business. A mechanical engineer by trade, he was simply looking for a side project when a friend told him about an aunt looking to sell her late-husband’s business, Mound City Shelled Nut Company. Intrigued, he went over to its Delmar Loop storefront to have a look.

“It was empty – all the shelves, the windows, nothing. There was only one bag of peanuts in the whole store,” recalls Smyrniotis. “I didn’t know anything about nuts, but I put a second deed of trust on my house and bought the business, thinking I’d do it on the side. I learned quickly that wasn’t going to happen. It took about six months, maybe less, before I went into it full-time.”

Since 1973, Smyrniotis has been the patriarch of Mound City, an iconic St. Louis institution that had already been in business for 56 years before he took over the operation. Known for its high-quality nuts, butters and chocolate-covered products, Mound City has been the embodiment of the small, local business, well before such a lifestyle was in fashion.

It’s also been kosher ever since he took over. Though Smyrniotis cannot say for sure whether or not Mound City was kosher from its founding in 1917 (he suspects so), he is proud that he has never wavered in his commitment to bringing certified products to his customers – even if the process has dramatically changed over the years.

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“In the early days, there wasn’t the thoroughness of inspection that there is now,” Smyrniotis says. “They’d just come by, have a look and give us labels to put on our shelves. Now, it’s changed considerably. We must show that we’ve sterilized the equipment, and when the rabbi gets here, he covers it. He watches us pack every single back on which he puts a sticker for the protection of Passover.”

Though not Jewish himself, Smyrniotis is passionate about serving his Jewish customers not only during Passover but throughout the year. Though his nut butters are not certified for Passover, many of his other products are, including 11 different kinds of nuts and various candies, all of which are made in house.

However, Smyrniotis believes his commitment to kosher certification benefits even the non-Jewish community. As he sees it, the designation implies a level of cleanliness that puts his customers at ease – especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also believes that it implies a level of wholesomeness so that people can feel good about what they are putting in their bodies.

Smyrniotis believes that his product’s wholesomeness is the secret to Mound City’s continued success, as is his commitment to quality. He buys directly from the grower – Brazil nuts from farms in Brazil, pecans from Georgia, filberts from Oregon and pistachios and walnuts from California.

“They aren’t sitting in a can on a distributor’s warehouse shelf before we buy them,” Smyrniotis explains. “We say we’re from the farmhouse to your house because they are that fresh. We process, package and sell all right here and do not need to use preservatives. It’s as fresh as you can get them.”

Maintaining that quality for nearly four decades has been all-consuming. Smyrniotis describes Mound City not so much as a business, but as a way of life due to the requirements that he stay on top of both his products and the changing logistics of doing business over the years. He laughs when he recalls how big of a deal it was to get his first computer, whereas now, the operation relies on 13 of them. Still, he relishes the push to stay current and that he is always learning new things. That, coupled with the fact that he is able to work alongside his wife and daughter every day, has kept him going – even if it’s not always all sunshine and rainbows.

“My wife and I are together 24-7, and I like to joke with her when we get home and ask her how her day was,” Smyrniotis laughs. “She says, ‘Good, except my boss was a…’ well, you can’t print that, but it’s true. It’s an experience.”