The N.K. Hurst Company, which celebrates its 75th anniversary next month, dominates a very small niche in the very big packaged-foods industry—dried beans. Visit almost any supermarket soup aisle, examine the bottom shelf, and you’ll find Hurst’s offerings, more than 25 soup-fixings that range from Spanish-American Black Bean to Confetti Lentil Soupreme. Here’s how the 15 Bean version beats them all.
In the Beginning The Hurst building, which dates to 1906, sits next to Lucas Oil Stadium’s parking lot. The state wanted it to become part of the lot, but Hurst battled the eminent-domain claim. “I think we add a flavor to the neighborhood that they wouldn’t have had if they’d bulldozed us,” says president Rick Hurst (pictured, on the left). The business was founded in 1938 by Rick’s grandfather Needham King Hurst and is overseen by family members. The firm didn’t sell beans in a big way until 1947, when bean-craving soldiers back from World War II sparked demand.
Step 1 Hurst uses around 20 varieties of beans, peas, and lentils that arrive in 100-pound bags from around the country—pintos and Great Northerns from Nebraska, for instance—and are stored on the building’s second floor. When it’s time to make 15 Bean Soup, an employee muscles each of the requisite varieties (pinto, Great Northern, black, small red, light and dark red kidney, garbanzo, green and yellow split peas, cranberry, large and baby limas, small white, navy, and lentils) onto a “mixed pallet.” Hurst pioneered multi-legume soup when it introduced 15 Bean in the 1980s and now faces a slew of knockoffs, such as “14 Bean Soup” and “16 Bean Soup.”
Step 2 Bags of 15 Bean are supplemented with seasoning that is shipped to the plant in bulk sacks, placed into tiny packets, and slipped into each retail portion. Though the meat-intensive options include ham and bacon, none actually contain animal products. Smoke flavoring and a secret blend of spices provide the kick.
Step 3 Mixing a batch of 15 Bean is part science, part eye-balling. Bags of legumes are trundled to a special machine that mixes them and then removes stray stones, dirt, and dust. Each bean type is added in differing amounts: Filling pintos and Great Northerns are most common, cranberry beans less so. Black beans are used sparingly, lest they turn the broth disconcertingly dark. None of Hurst’s beans hail from Indiana. Our climate is too humid for these types of beans to thrive, says Rick—plus, local farmers often prefer to plant the more reliable soybean.
Step 4 Running a business out of an early-20th-century building isn’t easy, but Hurst is committed to the location. “We try to maintain it as a classic example of the warehouse district,” says Rick. And so they got inventive. For instance, the company uses gravity to power its production system. After the beans are cleaned, they drop down a chute to the first-floor packaging machine, which slips 20-ounce portions into plastic bags and seals them.
Step 5 Hurst’s equipment pushes out about 54 bags per minute, which adds up to around 20 million pounds of beans a year. This process is overseen by some of the company’s 30 employees, though that number can spike to more than 50 during the winter rush. Sales peak during Christmas and Easter, when folks seek ways to use leftover hambones. Hurst data also reveals that certain beans are popular in different regions. Texans, not surprisingly, love pintos. Midwesterners have a thing for Great Northerns, and New Englanders crave lentils and small white navy beans.
Step 6 Packaged beans roll down yet another conveyor belt to a boxing area. Demand spiked after the Great Recession broke in 2008, when (management surmises) strapped consumers cast around for cheap, healthy meals. And it doesn’t get much cheaper (about 50 cents per serving) than beans. Season pass–holders to Hurst’s popular parking-lot tailgating spot wield creative takes on the legumes—like pinto-bean cake, bean cheesecake, and “bean-a colada”—during the annual Hurst Beans Soup Cook-off, which happened this year before the Rams game on November 10.
The Final Step Boxes of 15 Bean wait on the loading dock; from there, Hurst’s products travel to all 50 states and worldwide through the U.S. Armed Forces, though the company doesn’t share revenue numbers. Hurst’s oddball location is easy for truck drivers to find. They just look for the stadium.
Photos by Nathan Kirkman
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.