The machines inside downtown Harlem's Tracy-Luckey Co. are rumbling daily to shell the annual pecan crop.
The plant is processing the nation's largest pecan crop in 35 years under new ownership, with new plans for the future of the 70-year-old company.
The change in ownership came about when Francis M. Tracy, who founded the pecan shelling and processing business in 1927, decided to step down as its leader, said his granddaughter, Ruth Tracy, company CEO and vice president.
Tracy joined forces with CFO Ed Wicker, in-shell pecan broker Bud Luckey and Harlem native Larry Prather as investors and owners of the business.
"Because I wasn't an owner, I had to find an investor because it was a new business and we are considering this a new business," Tracy said, adding that Prather is the majority investor. "We're using the name Lucky Lady Pecans doing business as Tracy-Luckey Co. starting October, a completely new company."
Prather, who also runs Prather Construction Co., said he found the opportunity interesting and wanted to bolster the city of Harlem by helping to keep the downtown mainstay business flourishing and to keep jobs available for city residents.
"I just thought it was a good opportunity for me," Prather said. "Really, the future of the business, I just got excited about being a part of it and I just came on in."
Prather, whose family has been close to the Tracy family for generations, said he and Tracy are working on new strategies to keep the plant's staff employed all year. Many employees were laid off in February, when processing of last year's poor pecan crop was complete.
"We're diversifying our business in a different way than it has been done in the past," Tracy said.
She said she is hoping to expand the business's candy manufacturing division, which produces candy coatings such as Praline, Angel Honey and Cinnamon Spice, from nearly 30 percent to 50 percent of sales to help keep the business busy year-round, even after short pecan crops.
"We're going to be experimenting with new flavors of candy-coated pecans," Tracy said.
Lucky Lady Pecans now offers retail sales of its pecan products through a small store, which opened Nov. 7. Tracy said the store soon will be moved to a larger area fronting Louisville Street and the company hopes to get back into providing corporate gift packs and fundraising opportunities by next fall.
"By the spring, we are going to set up where people can order on the Internet and use a credit card and ship," Tracy said.
Despite all the changes, Tracy said one thing remains constant -- her grandfather. Now in his 90s, he remains a fixture at the plant and spends a lot of time in his office. Her grandfather is the one who opened doors for Tracy, allowing her to get involved and earn respect as a woman in a man's business, she said.
"His presence is so valuable to the people downstairs (in the plant)," Tracy said. "I'll still talk to him about everything ... His presence is important."
Prather said he hopes to keep the 40 to 50 loyal employees working all year and start a retirement plan and other benefits.
About 90 percent of the staff has been working at the plant for between 15 years and 50 years. Manager Homer Gay has worked for the plant since 1958.
"I think this will make the biggest difference in this plant ... in several years," Gay said.
But some things never change. Pecan processing began Oct. 15, a few weeks earlier than the average pecan harvest. About 120,000 pounds of pecans are shelled and processed per week, Gay said.
"There's a lot more to shelling than most people think," Gay said, adding the plant has shelled more than 400,000 pounds per week.
Once bought from the growers, pecans go through a long process of cleaning, cracking, sizing and boxing, and then are placed in cold storage before shipping. Some pecans are taken for further processing such as roasting or candy-coating.
The current drought, which has been detrimental to other crops, has been good for pecans. Gay said rain is needed in the early stages of pecan development to grow the pecan, then to ensure the nut fills out the shell.
"You don't want too much rain because if you get too much, scab, a disease (will make) the leaves turn black, the nuts start turning black," Gay said.
Prather, who is new to the business, said "I've got a lot to learn. It is very interesting."
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