A hotspot the East Lansing community has called a home away from home for nearly 50 years has changed hands but will remain firmly in place.
The Peanut Barrel, 521 E. Grand River Ave. on new owners July 1, after longtime co-owners Joe and Jennifer Bell turned over the keys to Michael Krueger and John Mossholder, co-owners of Crunchy’s, another culinary institution.
As anyone who has ever snagged a coveted spot on the Barrel’s downtown patio knows, it’s one of the best places in the area to people-watch while satisfying your hunger and thirst.
(Full disclosure: Back when I was a grad student at MSU, the Peanut Barrel was the go-to for my journalism school classmates and I to debrief after exams. Also: As famous as the Peanut Barrel is for its burgers, my go-to has always been the BLT. Best BLT on the planet, bar none.)
Joe Bell said they had a handshake agreement last October and a formal deal was solidified in January.
Krueger “came to me a long time ago and said, ‘If you ever want to sell, let me know’,” he said. “For the longest time, we didn’t” want to.
Then came last June. A conversation started among the Bells about moving on to a new chapter in their life — one free of running a business. When the couple came to a decision to sell, Krueger was first on the list.
“Ultimately, we liked his offer best and really thought he had the best chance for success,” Joe Bell said.
Krueger said he and his wife have been Barrel regulars for at least the 17 years they’ve been married.
“Knowing Joe and Jen for the better part of that time, I let them know if they ever wanted to be done with the Barrel, I would be happy to take it over,” he said. “Eventually when they started feeling like it might be time, then we got a little more serious about it.”
Now that it’s a done deal, Krueger said he’s excited.
“They have a great staff, they have a great group of regulars. It’s right up our alley, so to speak. It’s where we like to hang out when we’re not at Crunchy’s,” he added. “It’s an honor to be able to take over such an amazing establishment that’s done so much for the community for the last 42 years.”
Does this end the East Lansing Burger War? Not on your life.
‘We’ll still compete,” Krueger said, laughing.
Back in the day
The Bells’ relationship with the Barrel goes back to before they held the keys, having met as co-workers.
“Scary thought!” Jennifer Bell quipped.
The pair married in 1975 and took ownership in 1980.
“I was a student in college and a server,” she recalled. “Joe was finishing up at MSU and was hired as an assistant manager.”
Over the years, she recalled, the Barrel has been a fertile breeding ground for many relationships and marriages — not all of which lasted. But one happy story is one that’s close to home: Their daughter Meghan met her future husband when they both worked at the Barrel as teens.
“There have been a number of engagements that’ve happened there, engagement parties,” said Joe Bell, who added that a few wedding receptions have been held there, too — including one just before the family concluded its ownership.
Looking back, the Bells said the timing for buying the Barrel in 1980 was ideal, after having recently sold their own place, the now long-defunct Bell’s Bar in Mason.
“The fellow that owned the Peanut Barrel, he wanted to get out, so he called me and asked me, ‘Do you want it?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we do’,” Joe Bell recalled. “I guess that was the beginning of the whole thing.”
What followed was 42 years of good times, notably adding a kitchen to the space that had previously only offered beer, wine and liquor. “When that happened, the hamburger business was born,” Joe Bell said with a chuckle.
Old-timers will recall the baskets of peanuts on each table, along with the freedom to throw the shells on the floor — a practice that has not survived.
“There was an issue with an insurance company,” Joe Bell said. “They just said, ‘Don’t do this anymore.’ Our arguments fell on deaf ears, so now we provide a bowl for the shells.”
A business like the Peanut Barrel, located smack in the middle of a college town, has meant countless busy days. No time to take in a football Saturday or a basketball title win. Perhaps the busiest Joe Bell remembers being is the day the Rolling Stones packed Spartan Stadium in 1994.
“I can’t forget that day, because I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked,” he said. “It was crazy busy all day long. We opened at 11 a.m., you started right out and you didn’t stop until long after the concert ended. Everyone asked, ‘Did you go to the concert? Did you have a good time?’ And we were like, ‘Um, no. We wouldn’t have time to go to a concert.”
About those post-exam sessions: “That was something unique about the Barrel,” Jennifer Bell said. “We always saw a lot of professors and grad students and groups coming in to celebrate after an exam or the end of the semester.”
There were even professors, usually small graduate-level groups, who held small classes at the Barrel.
“They wouldn’t do it every week or every day,” Jennifer Bell said. “They’d all sit around, have a couple of beers and get their work done. I think the university decided that was just not a great idea.”
Over the years, some menu items they figured would be surefire hits weren’t, like a ribeye steak sandwich introduced (and retired) in the mid-1980s. Some classic items were never on the menu due to the size of the kitchen and storage area.
“People always wondered why we didn’t do onion rings,” Jennifer Bell said. “We had room for one fryer, and that had to be for the French fries.”
Oh, and about that stellar BLT: “The bacon is amazing, isn’t it?” Jennifer Bell said. “During the pandemic, we struggled a little bit because we couldn't always get the best bacon.”
Looking ahead, after 42 years, developing new routines outside of the Peanut Barrel has been somewhat daunting, but the Bells think they have things under control.
“It’s going to be a new adventure, but one that we really embrace,” Jennifer Bell said.
“We’re doing just fine,” Joe Bell added.
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