UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the past six months, Katie Byrne has been traveling the United States in a giant peanut, where the smiles are big and peanut puns are abundant. It’s an experience she describes as, well … “nutty.”
More than 1,500 recent graduates from all over the country applied to drive the 24-foot long, 11-foot high Planters NUTmobile. With two other “peanutters,” Byrne, who earned a degree in advertising/public relations in May, promotes the Planters brand at festivals, parades, retail shops and sporting events. They also blog and share their experiences on the company’s social media accounts.
It’s a yearlong position and her team is currently exploring the central United States.
“I love to travel. So I went to the info-session my senior year and this opportunity sounded so cool,” Byrne said. “I went home and told my mom and she said, ‘This is going to be your first job.’ She knew it.”
Byrne grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and, according to her co-workers, has no shell to break out of. She has a personality and attitude tailor-made for interacting with the public. She was a cheerleader in high school and was also a ball girl for the Philadelphia Phillies, which included overseeing game volunteers and working with youth clinics.
“Katie has that ability to engage in and maintain a thoughtful conversation with just about anybody,” fellow peanutter Danielle Karnbach said. “That is something many people would find difficult to do.”
Active with the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon as a student, Byrne was on her way to the dancing event when she got the call from Planters. Luckily, the hiring manager was understanding.
“I was literally walking to start THON and I get this call from Wisconsin,” she said. “The caller — my future boss — asked if it was a good time to talk. You hate to say no, but I told him I was about to start dancing for the next 46 hours. I had to postpone the call.”
Luckily, Byrne was able to reconnect. Later that month, she flew to Chicago to interview, and she accepted the job in April. Since then, she has visited 30 cities in 13 states. “Even after six months on the road, Katie is still eager to explore every city. She always seeks out the quirks that make a city unique,” Karnbach said.
“There are all these great cities in the middle of the country you may not think to visit,” Byrne said. “I have really grown to love them … Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis. They are great cities. We’re on our way to Houston now.”
Byrne, with her NUTmobile mates, Karnbach and Travis Rupp, will be traveling the West Coast during their next six months on the road. No matter the city or state, all three say they enjoy the smiling faces they see along the way. Byrne still isn’t used to the rubbernecking and finger-pointing, however.
“It’s really easy to forget that you’re in a giant peanut,” she said. “I often think, ‘What are those people pointing at? Why are they waving? Then it hits me … ‘Oh yeah!’”
A NUTmobile is quite literally a giant peanut on wheels, and there are three such vehicles traversing the country. Byrne’s is the original and its name is “Ro-shell.” Solar panels and a wind turbine on the roof power the inside electronics. The floor is made out of reclaimed wood from an 1800s Lancaster barn and the vehicle runs on biodiesel made from, of course, peanut oil. (There is also plenty of “legume.”)
The peanutters say the NUTmobile is an instant conversation starter. People want to take pictures with it. They ask questions about life on the road, and it’s a great environment to spread the Planters brand message. That is Byrne’s favorite part of the job and, according to Karnbach and Rupp, it’s where she really excels.
At an event outside a supermarket, Byrne started chatting with an elderly gentleman. According to Karnbach, Byrne had a genuine interest in what he had to say and they discovered a mutual love — baseball.
“I could just see the way the man’s eyes lit up during the conversation,” Karnbach said. “He walked into the grocery store with this indescribable smile. He later came back out with his wife and introduced Katie to her, and I could just tell that the connection Katie created with him just made his day.”
For Byrne, it seems like all roads — geographic and professional — lead back to baseball. She is a loyal fan of the sport and would like to visit each of the 30 major league stadiums before she is 30 (She is currently up to eight). She also has career aspirations to be a part of its history.
“My lifelong goal is to become the first female general manager in Major League Baseball,” she said. “That is a huge thing for me.”
Rupp, a soccer fan, said Byrne’s love for baseball is contagious. Over the past five months, he visited three ballparks with her and says he’s already begun feeling the baseball bug creep in.
“I would be failing in telling you anything about Katie, if I did not mention baseball,” he said. Given her enthusiasm, “I can’t imagine a better individual to be the first female GM. Her sports knowledge frequently puts me to shame. And if it’s Philly sports we’re talking about, forget about it.”
It has been less than a year since Byrne graduated, and life has already thrown her a few curveballs. But she said no matter what comes her way, it’s important to swing.
“Not many 22-year-olds get to see the USA and run the social media account for a multimillion-dollar brand,” she said. “Don’t let opportunities pass you by … even if they sound a little nuts."