EVERETT — The second week of March began just as many before it at Leavitt Corp. Peanuts and salt came in the door. Jars of Teddie Peanut Butter went out.
Then, seemingly overnight, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. By the time Friday the 13th rolled around, the world outside the peanut butter factory was shutting down, retreating into isolation to stop the spread of the deadly virus. But inside the factory, under the iconic red sign and its dancing bear, Teddie’s employees were fighting to keep up with a peanut butter panic that had swept the nation and emptied supermarket shelves.
The plant kept running over the weekend. The supply chain went on red alert. Strict safety measures were put in place. Truckloads of peanuts traveled from the mid-Atlantic to Everett. And this 90-year-old regional brand, so beloved it borders on having a cult following — many people argue you can’t make a proper Fluffernutter without it — accomplished the implausible in what felt like an instant: It tripled production.
Toilet paper and hand sanitizer have hoarded the hoarding headlines, but peanut butter has been close behind, with many stores forced to ration how many jars can be purchased at one time.
And so as health care workers lead the fight from the front, Teddie has been one of the unsung companies fortifying the rear, its employees drafted into a Rosie the Riveter role to fortify the supply lines that will help keep people at home.
In some ways, it is a return to Teddie’s roots: The brand was started 90 years ago by Michael Hintlian, an Armenian immigrant who had originally sold candies and mixed nuts. When the calamity of the Great Depression hit, he transitioned to peanut butter, with the goal of providing an affordable source of protein.
“We’re not front-line responders like doctors and nurses. They’re the heroes,” said Mark Hintlian, the CEO and third generation of the family to lead the company. “But we as a company feel we have a back-line role to play in this crisis, to restore the American food supply with a product that is shelf-stable, highly nutritious, and relatively low-cost.”
It is a small role, in a crisis in which everyone can play a small role, but you can feel their pride in being able to fill it.
“The best way of saying ‘we’re there for you’ is not a marketing campaign. It’s for the product to be on the shelf when you get to the grocery store,” said Jamie Hintlian, Mark’s brother and the chief operations officer.
He said the company had been preparing for a possible increase in demand since February, but as March arrived and brought with it the first closures and cancellations, things still felt like “an out-of-body experience, where all these things seemed to be happening around us.”
By March 13, demand had hit a crescendo that has not stopped.
To keep up, safely, has required an extraordinary level of coordination among not only the employees at the Everett factory, but up and down the supply chain. Jar, lid, and label suppliers had to step up, as did the peanut shellers themselves, who are all based in the United States and concentrated in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. To get the 2,000-pound bags of peanuts to Massachusetts, they had to chase down new trucking options, a task that was made easier by the unfortunate fact that many other industries are suffering.
In Everett, they kept the plant running on weekends and staggered work shifts to minimize contact. Face masks became mandatory, the facility was shut to visitors, and they installed a porta-potty outside for the truck drivers. Even lunch times were shuffled to keep people from crowding into the break room, and most of the chairs were removed.
“We’ve asked a lot of our employees, and I’m so proud of how they have responded,” Mark Hintlian said. “Their spirit is incredibly high. We all feel like we’re part of something important. I would love to give them a hug, but the waves I get when I walk through the plant are enough for now.”
To thank the employees, many of whom also go back generations with the company, the Hintlians have instituted an ongoing bonus for everyone while the state of emergency lasts. “This was something we actually debated because we didn’t want to incentivize people to make bad decisions or to come to work if they weren’t feeling well, but we felt the need to express our appreciation for how hard they are working,” Jamie Hintlian said.
It’s a lot of work for peanut butter, but as the Hintlians are well aware, for those who love it, it is more than a food — it is a simple comfort. And you can hear the emotion in the brothers’ throats when they talk about how it feels to be able to provide that comfort to people at a time when such feelings are in short supply.
“I can’t tell you how it feels to get a text message from a friend to say they just went to Market Basket and while this and that were cleared out, they were able to get their Teddie,” Jamie Hintlian said.
Lane Turner of the Globe staff contributed to this report.