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By Kerri Jackson Case
It turns out the Brittle Brothers of Nashville are not technically related. John Spalding and Jay Lowenthal are two guys who grew up five doors down from one another in Pontiac, Ill., but were raised like family.
“You know when the kids say, ‘Brothers from another mother,’ that’s what we are.” Spalding said.
Every year of their childhood, when the first really cold snap hit around November, Spalding’s mother would make peanut brittle using an old family recipe. It was the signal to all the neighborhood kids who ate it that Christmas was coming.
“There is a strong bond between joy and peanut brittle for us,” said Spalding.
After high school the two went their separate ways, pursuing different careers. Chance brought them both to Nashville nearly two decades ago, where they picked up the friendship as if no time had passed.
Around 1986, Spalding got the recipe from his mother for the brittle. He began to tinker with it a bit, eventually putting his own spin on the candy. The family liked it so much, he took over as the designated brittle maker each holiday season.
A few years ago, Lowenthal was at the Spalding home. He tasted some peanut brittle Spalding made using his version of his great-grandmother’s recipe. He recognized a successful business idea the moment he bit into it.
“He said it was crazy good, and he wanted to start a business and be my partner,” Spalding said. “I thought about it a little and decided, let’s do it.”
The secret to the Brittle Brothers great taste is the peanuts. According to Spalding, the most expensive ingredient in brittle is the nut. The cheapest ingredient is the sugar. Most commercially available brittle uses more sugar and fewer nuts to increase profits. They have taken the opposite approach.
“I use a peanut called the Virginia super extra large 420 count,” he said. “It’s the largest peanut I’ve been able to find. I experimented with the recipe, adding more and more of these peanuts until it burned. And then I knew I that was the most peanuts I could get into the recipe. That’s the amount we use in our production.”
They began by renting a commercial kitchen in a church to make batches of the brittle. It didn’t take long for locals to realize how good their product is. When the Opryland Hotel began stocking the brittle, word spread quickly around the country through visitors there.
They are now in Whole Foods and Fresh Market groceries throughout the country. They are also available through specialty food locations and gourmet shops. They’ve left the church kitchen and have their own production facility in Goodlettsville, Tenn., just outside Nashville. They’ve also expanded their line to include cashew and pecan brittle.
Spalding says the lesson they learned early on was to start and stay high-end. The reason for their success is absolutely the quality of their product.
“When you’re picking what kind of brittle you want to buy for yourself or as a gift, you have to decide what kind of person you are,” he explained. “Me, I want the good stuff. I want a fine wine, not a box wine. Our brittle is the fine wine of the candy market. When you put that first nugget in your mouth, it’s over. You’ll never want another brittle again.”