It’s fresh, pure and delicious, and it’s a brand some Detroiters might recognize. From Detroit Public Television‘s documentary “Detroit Remember When: Made in the Motor City,” host Erik Smith takes viewers on a nostalgic journey back to the creation of the Velvet Peanut Butter company in Detroit in 1937.
Smith talks to Linda Klein, the daughter of Velvet Peanut Butter Founder Paul Zuckerman, who was referred to as the “peanut butter king;” Tom Klein, a former Velvet Peanut Butter executive; and Eric Bruce, the company’s new president and CEO who has recently brought the peanut butter brand back to Michigan’s local grocers, about the brand’s rise to popularity, what led to the company’s decline in the 1980s, and how the iconic peanut butter brand became intertwined with Detroit’s history.
Eric Bruce, President & Chief Executive Officer, Velvet Peanut Butter: I really think local brands help you identify with who you are.
Erik Smith: OK, so whatever happened to Velvet Peanut Butter?
Eric Bruce: It was a very prominent brand, and I remember it being prominently displayed in the grocery stores. And at the time, most of the grocery stores were locally owned. Stores that used to carry Velvet Peanut Butter are no longer around, Great Scott, Farmer Jack, Chatham.
Erik Smith: There were all the national brands, Peter Pan, Skippy, but here in Detroit, Velvet was our peanut butter.
Eric Bruce: I don’t know that I realized it was a Detroit brand at the time. It was just the most popular brand in the grocery store.
Linda Klein, Daughter of Original Velvet Peanut Butter Founder: But it was smooth. It was smooth, fresh, pure and delicious; it was smooth.
Erik Smith: Paul Zuckerman was the man behind Velvet. He came to America from Turkey as a little boy and wound up right here in Detroit.
Linda Klein: Started in 1937, and the way it happened, according to Paul Zuckerman, my father, he was driving a truck when he decided he wanted to marry my mother. Her parents didn’t think driving a truck was so impressive and he was looking to, he was always very entrepreneurial.
Erik Smith: So Mr. Zuckerman and another truck driver went into the peanut butter business.
Linda Klein: They bought a couple of machines and set up shop in a garage on 12th Street, my father and Harry Gaz, and the two of them alone together did everything.
Erik Smith: Harry Gaz ran production and Paul Zuckerman became the salesman.
Tom Klein, Former Executive, Velvet Peanut Butter: He would tell me that he’d fill up his car with cases of peanut butter and go out and hit the road. And his favorite sales pitch was, “I’m down to one last case of peanut butter, I don’t want to go home with it. Just take the last one and make my day.”.
Erik Smith: When World War II started, Uncle Sam pressed Velvet into service to help feed our troops.
Linda Klein: Because the government felt it was such an essential product, that probably put the stamp of approval on peanut butter. Mothers probably felt, well if it’s good enough for the soldiers and they think it’s healthy.
Erik Smith: The Velvet’s Jar came with those fresh, pure and delicious faces inspired by Paul Zuckerman’s little boy Norbert.
Linda Klein: It does look like him. He wasn’t so pure, but he was a cute kid; adorable kid.
Erik Smith: You know there was a time eating peanut butter was actually a chore. The oil and the ground peanuts would separate, and then they had to be mixed again by hand. Paul Zuckerman had the solution.
Linda Klein: It was called, “Velvet homogenized peanut butter”, and he always claimed that they started it, so I only can believe that. But you know, I wouldn’t go to court on it.
Tom Klein: He was so successful with it, he was known everywhere as the peanut butter king. And if he wasn’t known when you first met him, as the peanut butter king, he made sure that you knew that he was the peanut butter king by the time you finish the conversation.
Erik Smith: In 1950, the peanut butter king decided to diversify, buying the crunchy potato chip company.
Linda Klein: Soupy Sales advertised for them. He used to call everybody a birdbath. I don’t know why, you’re a good birdbath or you’re a bad birdbath. He was just a wild guy.
Erik Smith: By the late 1950s, Velvet merged with Sunshine Biscuit, joining national brands like Hydrox, Cookies and Hi-Ho crackers. Test kitchen cooks dreamed up dishes with ingredients like gelatin, miracle whip and peanut butter.
Linda Klein: But there was a big thing in those days, Jell-O and miracle weapon, Jell-O and sour cream, and Jell-O and whipping cream. I loved it, but that does not sound like a very good recipe to me. You can’t win them, right.
Erik Smith: The sunshine deal did make Paul Zuckerman a multimillionaire, but he stayed on in charge of the velvet operation.
Tom Klein: When the brand was at its strongest, we had sales in Indiana and several cities, some in Illinois. But basically, it was a Detroit brand and an unbelievably well-known Detroit brand.
Erik Smith: Just a few years later, Sunshine’s enthusiasm for peanut butter apparently dimmed, and Paul Zuckerman bought his company back for, well, peanuts. By then, he’d be known as a philanthropist, as well as the peanut butter king.
Linda Klein: His answer was, “Well, I guess I’m just a lucky truck driver. Just a lucky truck driver”. So, people sometimes would tease and make a little bit of fun about it.
Erik Smith: Once again, Velvet Peanut Butter was sold to another national company that, well, shut it down in the 1980s.
Eric Bruce: Things disappear, and you don’t really notice them for a long time. And then, when you can’t find it anymore, you start to wonder.
Erik Smith: Well, now it’s back in local supermarkets. Eric Bruce, a Detroit area native, is making Velvet Peanut Butter, once again.
Eric Bruce: We went back to a velvet recipe from the 40s. Velvet Peanut Butter, just like all other brands, the recipe had changed throughout the years, and we went back to an old-fashioned recipe.
Tom Klein: It became a terrific brand. But the real story is that it was Paul Zuckerman. You know, he made it what it is. I guess the proof is it’s on the shelf again, we got Velvet Peanut Butter back on the shelf, which is quite a nice thing.
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