Anthony Wright, an entrepreneur better known as Tony the Peanut Man, has been selling peanuts — boiled, fried, and roasted — for 21 years at Charleston sporting events and tourist hot spots, and he has done all of the cooking in his own backyard. In the early morning hours Tuesday, all of his equipment was destroyed in an unexplained fire behind his home. No one was injured, and the fire did not reach his house, but he estimates that he lost $10,000 worth of barrels, burners, grills, propane, and cooking supplies.
Wright isn't sure when the fire started, but he was inside his house in the West Ashley neighborhood of Maryville at some time between midnight and 1:30 a.m. when a neighbor from a few doors down came banging on his door and said, "Man, there's a fire out there." The neighbor had already called the fire department, so Wright ran around the outside of the house to grab a garden hose. As he turned the corner, he says he "could hear the fire blooming," and just as he got within 20 feet of the tent structure that covered his pots and boilers, something exploded like a firecracker. He thinks it was a propane tank.
Backing off toward the house, Wright watched as the blaze consumed 900 pounds of peanuts and melted down the walls of 50-gallon metal drums. He says firefighters arrived five to ten minutes later and were able to put out the fire before it spread, but his equipment was already demolished.
Wright doesn't know what started the fire. He had left one pot of peanuts to boil overnight, and he says it had been about 45 minutes since he last went into the backyard to check on their progress. He says he had gotten permission from the city to cook peanuts in the yard, and he had been careful to do his work far away from any houses. Now he doesn't know what's next.
"In my lifetime, I know that things can easily be turned around, so there's no use in me getting angry or getting upset," Wright says. "I'm walking away with a smile, and that's what it's all about. It's like death. Somebody dies, you're going to feel the pain, and then you pick yourself up from there.
"Don't think I'm alone, now," he adds, pointing skyward. "I've got a friend up there helping me out. As long as I've got that, it's all good."
Wright's cell phone was ringing almost nonstop as he stood in the smoky ruins of his backyard peanut production line. Friends were calling to make sure he was OK and to see what they could do to help. As he stepped over a carpet of blackened peanut shells, a neighbor walked into the backyard to give him a handwritten note and ask if he needed someone to watch his dog, Bam Bam.
This is not the first time Wright has had to start over from scratch. In 1991, he was making $17 an hour at a production control job in Lockheed Martin's supply warehouse on Azalea Avenue when his mother asked him what he would do if the plant were to close down. "I said, 'Mama, that plant ain't closing,'" Wright recalls. "I think my mama put a jinx on me, because after she said that, six months later, the plant closed, and I didn't have experience doing anything else."
When the savings ran dry, he found himself getting in line at the unemployment office. On the way there, he ran into an old acquaintance selling peanuts on the sidewalk. The man offered him a job, but Wright said no. In fact, he turned the man down three times. "I almost let my pride get in the way," Wright says in retrospect.
The fourth time they crossed paths, Wright stopped to consider the offer. "I said, 'Man, why should I go and sell peanuts for you?'" he says. "He said, 'You see that line back there?' I said, 'Yes sir.' He said, 'You deserve to get in that line, because you work. But I want you to understand that if you get in that line, you might be looking for a handout the rest of your life." Broken down and bankrupt, Wright took the job and started hawking peanuts for a dollar a bag.
In the time since 1991, Wright has struck out on his own, and today he employs other sellers to sling his famous salty peanuts at RiverDogs baseball games and in the City Market. Even at age 59, he can often be seen singing and dancing to make a sale.
If you would like to offer help or an encouraging word, Wright can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his cell phone at (843) 478-0569.