The story of the Philly snack classic Nuts to You, in a nutshell

Howard Bernstein (left) and his son, Justin Bernstein, at their Nuts to You store at 721 Walnut St.

Manny Radbill was a cigar salesman in the mid-1970s who saw his future going up in smoke.

"He just had this idea that nuts were going to take off," his former son-in-law Howard Bernstein said. "It was going to be a health craze."

Radbill persuaded his daughter, Caryn, and Bernstein, Caryn's then-husband, to join him in opening Nuts to You, a store that specialized in nuts and other snacks sold by the pound. "I mean, the honest truth -- it was basically go in partnership with him or [Caryn] was going to college," Bernstein said.

The first Nuts to You opened in 1975 on South 2oth Street near Chestnut Street, quickly expanding next door. Now, Howard Bernstein, 62, and the couple's son, Justin, 34, own five locations -- four in Center City, in addition to one in Northeast Philadelphia. 

We chatted last week at their store on - appropriately - Walnut Street near Washington Square.

You've been around this all your life? 

Justin Bernstein: I was 2 years old, and I was pushing buttons on the cash register. One thing my father always taught me was, "You go out, get your own job. Figure out your own life first before coming in the business." So I did. I worked for Boscov's department stores for about three years out of college [at the University of Pittsburgh]. I came here, I think, because of the possibilities. It really was a great opportunity.

What did Justin bring to the business?

Justin Bernstein: We were missing out on some products. Some things that I know that I had started eating, like a natural [dried] pear, natural dried mango with no sulfur dioxide, things like that. So I wanted to really bring that on board.  ... I've been here now about eight years, nine years. Even to this day, we still need to expand.

Is the nut and snack field growing?

Howard Bernstein: The whole market's growing in nut and snack. I mean with online, it's a different beast now on how we sell it. We do have an online website. We're working very hard to try to increase that. The avenues of how you sell the product have changed. People still like to come in. We still get our lunch rush, especially at hospitals around the neighborhood. The nurses and doctors [at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, nearby] like to munch on snacks and nuts. 

Who are your customers?

Justin Bernstein: We have everybody from janitors to lawyers. That's the thing with us. We're not a high-end chocolatier, where it's $30 a pound. You can buy hard candy for a dollar and you can buy pine nuts for $21. So we have something for everyone.

Your best sellers?

Justin Bernstein: Popcorn, by far, is the No. 1. We make it fresh, in-house, daily. Just regular salted or no salt. And our nuts, of course. We roast all our own in-house up in our warehouse in Frankford. 

Howard Bernstein: Almonds have really increased the past five years.

Why do you think that is?

Howard Bernstein: All about health. They're finding out almonds are the healthiest nut out there. And walnuts. They help prevent heart attacks. It's amazing when people google it. We're even seeing growth in a lot of our natural product that we didn't even carry three or four years ago. Take our natural mango. I remember we thought, 'Oh. Let's try 50 pounds of it. See how it goes.' Now, we can sell 50 pounds in a week. Justin brought in a lot of the natural stuff. Like he said earlier. Kids his age are buying.

Justin Bernstein: The millennials.

Howard Bernstein: Whatever they're called.

When did you open a roastery?  

Howard Bernstein: The first 10 to 15 years, we jobbed it out. Then we decided to invest in our own equipment. We bought it from a company in New Hampshire. Had it shipped down and we've been using it ever since. It's just like what they use at Planters Peanut. It's called a Mini-Mastermatic, a mini-scale of what the big guys use. And we've just been doing it ever since. And I guess people don't even realize that we control everything that way, by roasting ourselves.

Speaking of the big guys, do you feel them breathing down your neck at all in terms of retail competitors?

Justin Bernstein: I think the ones that are kind of breathing down our necks now are the Targets of the world. They're now here. And I know they already put out a couple small little grocery stores. People don't go there to buy nuts, but if you're there and you go, 'Oh. I don't feel like walking the two blocks to Nuts to You. I like theirs a lot better.' It's hit us a little bit. So we have to really differentiate ourselves. Find different products to get the people. That's roasting our own nuts. I mean, who knows when theirs are cooked? Ours are cooked every week. So that almond you're buying is no more than a week old. CVS never used to carry as much chocolate and peanuts and things 10, 15 years ago. Now they're getting into dried fruit. So that worries me. And these are companies with huge amounts of money. They can try things. Being small, it's trying to figure out our niche.  

What is that?

Howard Bernstein: It was started with his mother, actually. That was quality.

Justin Bernstein: Largest variety, lowest prices.

Howard Bernstein: That used to be on every sign.

Justin Bernstein: We still are. Even the Targets of the world -- most of our prices are less than even Target.   

Where is the company headed? 

Justin Bernstein: I'm looking for growth. I am looking in, actually, Washington, D.C., at locations there. I know a few Philly companies that have moved there from here. So that's one of my next possible steppingstones. I've been down there probably 12, 15 times in the last year.  It's an untapped market down there. There are a couple Whole Foods. But there's no inner-city Targets. There's no inner-city Wawa-type stores. A couple of CVSes and that's it. I think there still is some growth here. We're still playing with our product, listening to our customers. We're also trying get our name out there more. Just this past week, we did a community event with a nonprofit called Face to Face in Germantown. We donated 100 percent of our popcorn sales. We're trying to get people to say, 'Let me go to a local guy that supports this nice nonprofit.' And come to Nuts to You instead of going to buy at Target.

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