All Life's Cracked Up to Be
The last days of Tobias Pecans
Hruska's, of course, is a favorite stop on any given road trip barreling through Ellinger, Texas – the Tex-Czech kolache bakers and roadside respite deserves all kudos earned. But 100 or so paces to the east reveals a prize beyond the beloved gas n' potty stop. For those in the know, next-door neighbor Tobias Pecans is simply nut nirvana.
For over 34 years, the small pecan warehouse has been keeping folks along the Austin–Houston corridor deep in Texas tree nuts. Launched in 1980 by hometown sweethearts Jay Dee and Lucille Tobias, the business began as a wholesale partnership with nut buyers Ara Brothers of Gonzales, Texas, until the brothers encouraged the couple to strike out on their own. Since then, Tobias has evolved into a small but steady retail and mail-order venture with 75 acres of prime Texas pecan orchards and thousands of customers bringing lots of repeat business.
But one of Ellinger's best exports may forever remain one of its best-kept secrets: On December 31, Tobias Pecans is rolling down its industrial warehouse doors for good and calling it quits.
It's a gray December Wednesday in Central Texas. The sun keeps trying to peek out and burn off the blanket of mist, but it never quite makes it. Inside the front office of the 7,200-square-foot pecan warehouse it's toasty, and Miss Lucy (as I've come to know her these many years of visits) is hustling to and fro.
A steady trickle of travelers and visitors stream in, greeted by the constant clack of the Meyer Machine Co. nutcrackers. Some folks come to buy already-shelled and -packaged nut meats, and some prefer whole, in-shell, straight out of the bin. An older gent moseys over and asks, "You shell pecans here, right?" "I crack 'em. Forty cents a pound," answers the spritely proprietress, explaining that she already sold the vacuum machine that cleans them up (another 30¢ per pound). Even with all machines at full bore, the process is labor-intensive and time-consuming. Each Meyer machine can process about 86 nuts – approximately one pound – per minute.
Customers on this blustery day reflect the typical – Austinites, Houstonians, and lots of folks from Louisiana – and all seem to fall into at least one of three categories: those shopping for a supply of nuts from what's left of her last crop, local folks wanting to have their own pecans cracked, or well-wishers who've come to find out if the news is true, that Lucille Tobias is shuttering the business after three decades.
Margie Frenzel, from Bernardo, Texas, drove in with 72 pounds of pecans filling four hefty buckets from her mom's yard. This is her fourth year of bringing nuts to crack. They plan on doing a lot of baking and candy-making at the Frenzel house this Christmas. "When Dad was living, he'd sit and crack pecans on the porch, using one of those old table-mounted crackers with the spinning thing on it." She herself has never enjoyed an afternoon on the porch cracking nuts. "Not since I found her," she grins, gesturing over to the industrious lady tending to the loud cracking machine one minute, then swiftly gliding across the warehouse to consult with customers and refill the bins the next.
Lucille met Jay Dee when his family bought a farm next to her family's farm when they were both 5 years old. The hardworking Texas farm kids were pals all their lives and began dating in high school. "This is a Czech and German community. We did a lot of dancing – polkas and waltzes. It was either go to a movie or dancing," she says wistfully. "At prom, our classmates made a circle, and let us dance while they walked around us. I'll never forget that. That was really special."
A year after their 1958 graduation, the pair married. Jay Dee eventually landed in real estate, and Lucy worked clerical jobs in Houston and Montgomery, Ala., before they moved back home and started dabbling in pecans. The couple never had children and never hired employees. "Everything we did, we did together," she explains. "And it worked really well for us."
Their love story spanned 52 years of marriage, "until I lost him in 2011," she says quietly. Jay Dee Tobias passed away at the age of 70. For the last three years, Miss Lucy has successfully run the show on her own.
Tobias had also become known for a variety of pecan treats. "I started with 3-ounce mini pecan pies. They were a big hit." She began stocking the retail with other companies' pralines, condiments, and flavored pecans, then realized she could make her own. The one-woman R&D department, chief cook, and bottlewasher began experimenting with cinnamon, then ventured into praline and chocolate. "Everyone says my chocolate ones taste like brownies," she beams. And really they do. Not merely draped in chocolate, these delicacies are uniquely candied and out of this world. "I just completed an order of 200 24-ounce tins for a customer," says Tobias. "I had to frost close to 300 pounds of pecans."
When Growing magazine reported in 2008 that Tobias Pecans has kept the Ellinger post office in business for years, they were not exaggerating.
Pecan trees produce biannually, and the crop can be greatly affected by many variables. Texas' recent blistering drought, for example, took out over 50 trees that the couple had planted over 30 years ago. A bad year can mean a 50% drop in revenue.
So having the choice to close up shop on her own terms – to not have the business forced out by the economy, the weather, or rampant redevelopment – makes hers an unusual story in 2014. But she's had her share of struggle.
After her husband passed, Miss Lucy was left with considerable debt. Fortunately, she had options, assets, and the know-how to leverage them. "Because we were also in the cattle business, and he was a real estate broker, we were diversified. If one business didn't make it, the other did." Within a few years, she pulled herself back up out of the red.
"This is my fourth season without him. I want out now. I'm looking forward to a new, different life." Retirement marks a beginning for her, not an end. Like her businesses, her life is diversified, and now is the time to focus on other things.
When she thinks about the first thing she wants to do when she closes up shop, her voice raises two octaves, and she chirps like a giddy schoolgirl: "Clean my house!" She laughs, thrilled at the prospect of willful spontaneity. "Work in my yard. Clean out my garage. Then I'm going to do some traveling. But just a little bit," she winks, ever the pragmatist. "My friend and I are going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year for sure.
"I could never convince Jay Dee to go overseas," she says with a smile. "I always wanted to go to the Czech Republic because that's my heritage. So I did in 2012. It was the best experience of my life. I found my great-great grandparents' home and where they went to church."
Any other exotic locales she'd like to explore?
"Right now, I don't have anymore interest in going overseas. I'm happy. I'd like to just go around here, the United States. I haven't seen all of it, you know," says the energetic pecan lady from Ellinger, Texas. "I've been working."
For more about Tobias' remaining holiday stock, other area nut retailers, a photo gallery, and fun nut facts, see austinchronicle.com/daily/food.