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Thomasina Petrus evokes Lady Day and grandma’s brittle

Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."

Thomasina Petrus is the only person to host both The Charlies and The Iveys, the two local award shows that honor the best in food and drink and theater, respectively. The Iveys were a fit because she’s been a fixture in the local theater scene as both an actress and a singer; and for the Charlies, she’s a singer and an actress and a candy maker. 

Currently, you can catch Petrus in Theater Latte Da’s production of "Five Points" at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, and then May 26-June 24 at the Jungle Theater on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, where she’s channeling the soulful Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill."

Her two worlds collide in the concession stand, where playgoers can purchase a snack-size bag of her cashew or sour apple brittle before finding their seats. Other outlets for her brittle are just as unique, ranging from the BP gas station on Lyndale Avenue South and Ace Hardware on Nicollet Avenue to more traditional outlets, Kowalski’s Market and The Wedge Co-Op. Come August, she’ll be manning a booth at the Minnesota State Fair. And, of course, you can order it from her website. 

Petrus’ business started out as Christmas gifts for her family and friends. And it’s her husband’s family’s fault she got into food. Her mother-in-law is a master chef from Trinidad. “She makes a chocolate Bailey cake that’s insane,” Petrus swoons. When word got out at Calvary Church that Ingrid was cooking lunch for the Bible study class, enrollment doubled, Petrus says. “Ingredients is her nickname. Her food is like hugging, it tastes like love.” 

Her sister-in-law, Leslie Wilson, was into making candles and persuaded Petrus to start selling her brittle at events around town. The first was in conjunction with a dance. “It was stepping,” she explains. “It’s partner dancing, the black version of waltzing for grown folks, classy.”

She didn’t feel so classy. “We had a table outside with dog soap, candles and brittle,” she says laughing at the incongruent items for sale. 

To test the demand, she took a large tin of samples and a notebook to a neighborhood craft fair and left them unattended at a table while she walked around. “I was gone 40 minutes,” she says. “I came back and the tin was empty and the notepad was full of orders.” That’s when she realized she could make some serious money.

Petrus bought tins from Woolworth and then velvet boxes when they ran out of tins, whipped up batch after batch of the brittle and then it dawned on her she had to deliver it. “The last delivery was behind a grave yard,” she says. The house was in a new neighborhood, not yet on the map. At 10:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve, she finally found the house and dropped off the velvet boxes. The woman told her “I’m glad you showed up, it’s the only thing I ordered for Christmas.”

When Petrus told her husband the story, he told her, “Either do it right as a business or quit,” she says. 

She decided to stop dabbling and make it a business. Her sister-in-law, who is a project engineer, joined her and the two moved the operations out of Petrus’ kitchen into a commercial one. For 10 years, they've have been manning a booth at the state fair, first outside the gates, and now inside. “Every year we say this is our last year,” Petrus says.

The fair, however, is the perfect setting for a vendor like Petrus, who has a big personality and a commanding presence. She sings the jingle she wrote for Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle, listens to comparisons of her brittle to someone’s grandmother’s without taking it personally and embraces the memories the samples evoke in people. “We’ve had people cry at our booth."

Another perfect venue is farmers markets. “We had to be there at 6 a.m., but nobody buys candy at 6 a.m.,” she says. By 11 a.m. people are more in the candy-buying frame of mind, but then the market closed at 1 p.m., she points out. It’s all about finding your audience and handing out a lot of samples, because once people taste the brittle, they tend to buy. “I only had one woman who didn’t like it; she said it tasted like soap,” Petrus says. “My next question (should have been), does she eat soap?”


Broadening horizons

The more traditional cashew brittle and her own creation, sour apple brittle.

Having a food business, she claims, makes you aware of things you’d never think would interest you, such as the political and environmental issues of cashew-growing countries and what cows are eating. “I don’t want the cost of butter to be my life,” she says, while admitting that she’s had conversations with farmers about why the latest shipment of butter was separating, all  while standing in warehouses next to a wall of bacon. But when one of your livelihoods depends on dairy and nuts, you pay attention.

Petrus’ stage presence gives her a certain comfort level when it comes to pitching her product; however, few people like cold calls. One that she thought she had the inside track on was to Bibelot, a gift-centric chain. “I had already had this vision of my cashew on her counter,” she says. The manager explained that they required their candy to have a shelf life of one year, and her brittle only had three weeks. 

“She said ‘no’ and I wasn’t prepared for that,” Petrus says. She was so sure that her product would be perfect for them, she even told the woman how she could display it next to the cash register. “She had nicely turned me down three sentences ago and I didn’t catch it,” she says, grimly. “It was humbling.”

The next day, rather than retreat, she called Kowalski’s Market to find out how she could pitch a product to them. To her surprise the woman on the phone invited her to meet. She and Wilson set up their products in the meeting room and began rehearsing what they’d say, arranging and rearranging their bags. When the buyer came over, Petrus realized she'd witnessed their nervousness, so she said, “First you have to taste." The woman did and then she started asking questions: Do you have a bar code? Do you have a stand-up bag? We have eight stores if we order, how fast can you deliver? What’s your case size? What’s your turnaround time?

Petrus and Wilson started taking notes. They agreed to a four-store test—which they passed. “I got a no expecting a yes, and a yes expecting a no, and you’ve got to be ready for both,” she says. While she enjoys the food business, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without also having her fingers in the performing arts. When she was in high school she entered the North H.S. Performing Arts program. 

“I wanted to go to New York and audition with Alvin Ailey (an elite black dance company), I thought I was that good,” she says, shaking her head. “I look at videos now and I was like a robot and I thought I was emoting all over the place.” She now has replaced “dancer” on her resume to “great mover.”


Cornbread and Prince

At 15 she was singing jazz with Cornbread Harris, a jazz pianist who now at 91 still plays jazz. (On Sunday evenings you can hear him and his group at Grand Café in Minneapolis.) When she got older, Petrus and Cornbread talked about taking their lounge act to Vegas. “I didn’t have enough gig songs so I could only do three or four songs,” she says, laughing. She was also invited to Paisley Park to recording a back-up track for Prince, who later repaid her by  attending one of her performances. 

Her upcoming show at the Jungle Theater speaks volumes to her. She remembers her mother taking her to see singer Shirley Witherspoon play Billie Holiday in the original play, and Petrus immediately swore to herself that someday she’d do that play. “She (Witherspoon) had a Chihuahua on stage,” Petrus says. “I’m allergic to dogs, so I took that out.” But what she left in was the soulfulness of Holiday. “Billie couldn’t read music but she had an ear that could interpret (like nobody else),” she says. “It’s like a napkin (it can be flat) or you can fold it a certain way and it can be a swan.”

The same can be true of cashew brittle and her second flavor ("You gotta have two versions") sour apple. It’s tweaking ingredients to get the taste of love. Both cooking and singing evoke a story.

“When I’m singing, that’s everything, that’s my brain set free, it feels like it’s all me,” she says. Singing, writing jingles, candy making, acting and great moves are all setting her brain free—and we get to benefit. 

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