Joan Rial has been the director of the Dickson Senior Center for three years now, and she’s still amazed by the part of her job with the City of Dickson that whets appetites just in time for Thanksgiving.
Rial joins forces with a Georgia pecan producer this time of year. Don’t ask her why, but it’s up to Rial to meet the demands of Dickson-area residents — not just seniors — who bake pecan pies for Thanksgiving, munch on the morsels straight out of the bag or enjoy a combination of the two.
The city assumes the role of a retail sales outlet for Wrens, Ga.-based Atwell Pecan Co., and Rial runs the Dickson operation. It seems to her that area residents just can’t get enough pecans: They’re buying more than $12,000 worth of nuts purchased wholesale by the city this year.
It hasn’t quite sunk in for Rial that she as a city administrator is grocery shopping for the general public — and for such an enthusiastic citizenry, too. Maybe someday it’ll all feel routine, but as of now she still gets a big kick out of it.
“Craziest thing ever,” Rial said.
This tradition predates Rial’s tenure and she doesn’t know how it started. City Administrative Assistant Chris Norman said he believes it began as a fundraiser for the senior center, though he isn’t certain.
Whatever the origins, the pecan operation hasn’t been a fundraiser or other activity tailored to seniors since Rial has been on the job. Rial is selling pecans as a city service, and her customers are anyone and everyone who require the tasty tidbits.
She certainly doesn’t have to push Atwell’s product line because people know who she is — and they’ll find her.
Dickson pecan lovers place their orders mostly in October with the senior center staff, sometimes flagging down Rial wherever in town she happens to be. Rial then places a single order with the company located near Augusta, Ga., for the annual shipment. When the truck arrives, the senior center morphs into a gourmet-nut store where people purchase their must-haves.
“They must be the best pecans ever,” Rial said. “People call year-round wanting to know when they’re coming in. It’s just crazy.”
The annual transaction with Atwell goes through the City Council, which on Nov. 4 unanimously approved this year’s purchase order for $12,331.68 worth of one-pound bags.
After the meeting, council member Betty Lou Alsobrooks approached Rial to insist on a share of this year’s haul.
“I need two of the pieces,” Alsobrooks told her — meaning two bags of pecan pieces, as opposed to wholes or halves, which are also available.
At the time of that meeting, the advertised deadline to order with the senior center had passed. But no matter: Rial buys extra. She anticipates many late orders and always makes sure the city’s check to Atwell is enough to cover those.
This year’s shipment arrived Nov. 14, when Chris Franz of Estes Express Lines parked his 18-wheeler in front of the senior center at 206 W. Walnut St.
Rial summoned Department of Public Works employees, who helped Franz unload the vehicle and used hand trucks to haul the boxes into the building.
In addition to plain pecans, there are flavored varieties such as chocolate and cinnamon-sugar. English walnuts are also on the menu.
Rial says some customers simply snack on the offerings. But she says many are buying them to bake pies — and it’s the freshly harvested plain pecans they’re hungry for.
Rial says she isn’t a particularly avid cook, but she’s learned a thing or two about how seriously some people take their ingredients.
Grabbing just any bag of pecans from the baking goods aisle in a supermarket? Fine for some people, but a culinary travesty for Rial’s customers, she says.
“Oh, it’s all about the quality,” Rial said. “It’s the freshness … the quality of the pecans, you can’t get them in a store.”
Only at the senior center, it seems.