Anthony Wright, the entrepreneur better known as Tony the Peanut Man, was inside his house in the West Ashley neighborhood of Maryville last Tuesday around 1 a.m. when a neighbor came banging on his door to tell him that his peanut-cooking equipment had caught fire in the backyard. 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 "could hear the fire blooming," and just as he got within 20 feet of the tent 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 10 minutes later and were able to put out the fire before it spread, but his equipment was already destroyed. Steel barrels had wilted like flower petals, and the tent was warped and flapping in the wind.
Wright 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. No one was injured when the fire ravaged his property, and it did not reach his house, but he estimates that he lost $10,000 worth of barrels, burners, grills, propane, and cooking supplies.
He doesn't know what started the fire, and a Charleston Fire Department spokesman could only say that it was believed "to have been started with cooking materials." Wright often boils his peanuts overnight, as they can take up to 14 hours to attain just the right consistency, and he says it had been about 45 minutes since he last checked on one pot he had left boiling that night. He says he had permission from the city to cook peanuts in the yard, and he had always 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 also has more than a few friends in Charleston, as he has discovered in the week since fire consumed the tools of his trade — his cell phone was ringing almost nonstop as he stood in the smoky ruins of his backyard peanut production line last Tuesday afternoon. 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 over to give him a handwritten note and ask if he needed someone to watch his dog, Bam Bam.
Tony the Peanut Man is a living Lowcountry legend, but he is perhaps best known as a fixture at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Stadium, home of the Charleston RiverDogs minor league baseball team. While his face has graced T-shirts and even a comic book through the years, the thing people tend to remember is the song he sings in the stands on busy nights at the park.
"Hey, hey, what I say, got some boiled and I got some toasted," he croons in a classic Charleston brogue, launching into a fast-talking sales pitch while bowing his legs and bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Dave Echols, general manager of the RiverDogs, says Wright is "definitely a mainstay ballpark character." When fans think of the RiverDogs, they think of the Peanut Man, who has been selling at the games since the team moved to the new stadium in 1997.
"It was a foregone yes that we were going to help him as soon as we found out," Echols says. Two days after the fire, the team started a four-game homestand against the West Virginia Power, and they decided to sell peanuts — shipped in from Cromer's P-Nuts in Columbia — and give a portion of the profits to Wright. They also set up a donation station at Guest Services.
"When you're a partner with somebody for that long and you run into some terrible news or bad luck or, God forbid, something like this, we certainly want to try to help as best we can," Echols says.
As Wright discovered over the following days, he has friends in high places. Among them is Cheryll Novak Woods-Flowers, former mayor of Mt. Pleasant, who has seen Wright at so many public events, she can't remember exactly when they first met. She says that while Wright didn't seem to remember her over the phone, he recognized her face when they spoke in person.
The two went to a First Federal Bank on Coleman Boulevard, where Woods-Flowers helped him to set up a donation account. Now anyone who wants to pitch in toward recouping Wright's $10,000 loss can make a donation at any First Federal location in the tri-county area. During non-business hours, donations can be dropped in the night deposit box with a note that they are meant for Tony the Peanut Man. The bank will also deliver any notes written to Wright. (Woods-Flowers says that since the donations are not going through a non-profit organization, they are not tax-deductible.)
Susan Codistoti, the banker who helped set up the account, says a total stranger walked into the bank, spotted Wright in her office, and stepped in to say he'd like to be the first person to donate. "Word travels pretty fast," she says.
Word also arrived at the corporate headquarters for Piggly Wiggly, and the management of the grocery store chain decided to replenish Wright's inventory with a 900-pound donation of peanuts. "He's a local institution, and we've known him for a long time and just wanted to do what we could to help him get the wheels turning again quickly — or I should maybe say get the pot boiling," says Christopher Ibsen, director of corporate affairs for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company.
And the donations just kept pouring in. People showed up at Wright's house and unloaded brand-new boilers from the backs of their vehicles. One construction contractor offered free labor to help rebuild the backyard setup. A lawyer handed Wright $1,000. Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ lent him some portable cooking equipment so he could get back to work. And bar and restaurant owners, including Mike Lotz at Triangle Char & Bar and Mike Vitale at Torch Velet Lounge, offered up their businesses as fundraiser locations.
Woods-Flowers says Wright was overwhelmed by all the love and attention when she went to see him. "You go through your life and you just don't know that so many people care about you," she says.
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 his 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, eventually employing other sellers to sling his famous salty peanuts at RiverDogs baseball games and in the City Market. Even at age 59, he will gladly sing and dance to make a sale.
For now, he is holding off on returning to a full-scale peanut-cooking operation until he can find a safer facility than his backyard. In the meantime, he is grateful to the numerous friends and strangers who have lent a helping hand.
"That is more than money or buying anything back," Wright says. "I mean, what else can you ask for than that you have unknown friends that you have contributed to and some you haven't, and they have so much concern about you? I mean, what else can you ask for in life?"
If you would like to offer help or an encouraging word, Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 478-0569. You can also make a donation at any First Federal Bank in the tri-county area.