A quest to create the perfect peanut butter has become one of North Carolina’s biggest food startup success stories, with jars of Big Spoon Roasters
nut butters sold in hundreds of gourmet food stores as well as national chains like West Elm and Whole Foods.
Sales continue to grow 100 percent a year as the company earns accolades, awards and recognition from many of the top food publications and organizations (Mission Almond is a 2015 Southern Living Food Award winner
), even with a marketing budget of zero dollars.
But where there is incredible growth, there are difficult challenges. And Big Spoon’s story is as much about managing those as it is making delicious handcrafted nut butters.
In recent months, the Durham food startup, founded and led by former Counter Culture Coffee marketing director Mark Overbay, has introduced a new line of nut bars and its first custom-designed jars. It hired a brand ambassador in California, its first outside North Carolina. And that’s all while beginning a search for a larger facility to produce, jar and ship products and investigating farms that might partner to create Big Spoon’s first soil-to-spoon peanut operation.
Meanwhile, Overbay has fielded investor requests, and will soon decide how to finance the business's growth while keeping the by-hand process that has made Big Spoon a success.
"We'll never compromise quality for any reason, as doing so would defeat the whole purpose of our business, which is to create the best possible version of every food we make," Overbay wrote to me in an email this week.
That mission is so unique and inspiring, that the national Good Food Awards added its first "Pantry" category this year just to include Overbay and entrepreneurs like him. For the first time, he'll have the chance to enter the "craft food"
industry's premiere contest, competing against sauces, salsas, vinegars, condiments and other nut butters made of responsibly-sourced, GMO-free ingredients around the United States.
"What is interesting about Mark is his background in coffee. He's meticulous about taste quality," says Good Food Awards founder Sarah Weiner. "Mark has brought those qualities to a new industry and transformed it."
How Big Spoon Roasters came to be
Overbay's story starts across the world in Zimbabwe, where he took a break from his career in marketing and communications to volunteer with the Peace Corps. For nearly two years, he lived in a mud hut working as a teacher and interacting with subsistence farmers in rural areas.
Though he was always a fan of peanut butter, he hadn’t tasted anything like the mixture of fire-roasted peanuts, honey, salt and coconut oil concocted there.
When he returned home, he was desperate to find a similar tasting nut butter. Over 10 years, he tried every possible brand and nothing measured up. So in 2010, he started experimenting in his kitchen in Durham, where he’d moved in 2006 to join Counter Culture.
Part of creating the best butter, he knew, was finding the best nuts. He settled on an African “runner” variety grown in Edenton, N.C. and North Georgia, what he calls “the most delicious with just the right mix of fats, protein and fiber.”
Early in 2011, he brought the first nut butters under the brand Big Spoon Roasters to the Carrboro Farmers Market. Big Spoon was in honor of his dad, who earned that nickname for the “huge glacier of peanut butter” he’d spoon out of the JIF jar for a snack. Within months, Overbay started getting press. First, via a Bon Appetit blog post. Later, recognition for Peanut Pecan Butter as one of Food + Wine Magazine's seven best things tasted all year earned him 100 wholesale inquiries in a matter of hours.
Overbay’s experience at Counter Culture played a big role in the new company. Just like coffee beans, he roasted the nuts to perfection. Then, he used a certain type of mill to achieve the perfect nut butter, which in his description has a “course ground texture.” It’s not smooth with chunks put into it, like most national brand chunky butters.
It also has a particular balance of salt, nut flavor and sweetness, a taste his six employees have come to recognize after lots of palate training.
From the beginning, special attention and a great deal of time was spent sourcing the right ingredients for the butters—10 are available today. Salt is a hand-harvested sea salt. Raw wildflower honey comes from a North Carolina beekeeper with family apiaries around the state. And organic cold-pressed coconut oil is shipped in from a cooperative of family farms in the Philippines. All come from organic farms and producers and must be traced to their origin.
Most other ingredients are sourced from around the state, though pecans now come from outside Raleigh as well as a Texas organic farm and stone ground dark chocolate comes from Boston. It took six months to find a traceable ginger source—that’s The Ginger People from Oakland, the secret to Almond Ginger, now one of the best selling butters.
A limited edition Vanilla Almond Pecan included vanilla pods carried by hand from Madagascar and a spicy peanut butter, inspired by flavors in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, included four types of chiles.
The care and concern for ingredients is part of what Weiner calls "the craft food industry," now with $200 billion in sales annually, 30 times America's beef industry.
"It's about the value-added supply chain of food rooted in agriculture but transformed through craftsmanship," she says. "Across the board, food crafters share a set of values—a real strong priority on quality and taste rather than their counterparts who make food or regular businesses where it's a focus on processes. They are more holistic in their goals for themselves."
Another part is the way they treat their employees. Overbay is a supporter of the Durham Living Wage Project
and offers base salaries of $13.75/hour, exceeding even those minimums, as well as monthly cash bonuses based on the company's growth. He reimburses employees for a CSA membership and health insurance and offers a stipend for gym/studio memberships. He'll soon offer a comprehensive group insurance plan for the first time, which he says he's "excited to report."
Managing the growth
But maintaining the commitment to quality over quantity means overcoming many challenges. And those grow exponentially when consumers rally behind the brand promise and want more and more of the product.
A particular challenge is production space. Only recently has Overbay started automating any aspect of his process. He bought an air-powered lid capper, operated by a foot pedal. And about half the labeling is done with a tabletop machine—the rest happens by hand. The only way growth can happen otherwise is by adding more assembly lines and people to staff them.
By August 2013, Overbay had outgrown a temporary production space and needed a permanent spot to produce, jar and ship the butters. He needed storage for ingredients and supplies—all butters are made to order, so at least he wouldn’t need room for inventory.
But he needed enough to keep a promise to make and ship all orders within a week. He decided on a 3,000-square-foot space in an office complext on Hillsborough Road in Durham. This year, he's feeling all those same challenges again, especially as he introduces the nut bars and grows his retail presence. He's working with a real estate company to find a larger building to house the existing, new and future product lines.
Bars are Overbay's first attempt to create a mix of Big Spoon products. They aren't totally new though—Overbay has sold them at the Carrboro Farmers Market for awhile. But an increasing number of customers asked for them, so he began to experiment with packaging and ingredients to ensure a good shelf life. The bars began shipping in May and have exceeded all expectations.
"We are having to say "no" to a lot of customers who want our bars simply because our capacity is not able to keep up with demand," he says. He hopes that will change when a bar production specialist joins the team—he's recruiting now.
Another way Overbay is prepping for the future is by seeking a peanut farmer to provide the 30,000 pounds of peanuts he'll need in a year. It’s his first move toward being “single origin,” which means all growing, shelling, cleaning and drying happens in one place. It’s rare in the peanut industry for a small producer to do all four, and that's made it incredibly hard to do a deal. Overbay has spent two years on the endeavor and two promising farming relationships have fallen through.
"We have yet to take a soil-to-spoon project all the way to completion," he says. "But we are getting there."
As for the finances, there's the benefit of no debt. And the business strategy and investment inquiries, none of which he's accepted so far, his wife Megan helps to vet and manage. She has an MBA from Duke University, works as a director of global strategy and leadership at PricewaterhouseCoopers and "is a god at spreadsheets and has a great mind for business."
Even jars matter at Big Spoon
Packaging matters as much as product to Overbay, and he always dreamed of having a big spoon blown into a custom jar. He just needed enough cash to make an order large enough to have the jars make economic sense. Overbay is proud of the fact that he could increase the size of the jar by 25 percent this May, without adding cost to the consumer. He ordered a year's supply.
The jars and labels represent the company’s brand values—minimalist and to-the-point. There is no cute marketing—the names are just the key ingredients of each nut butter. Almond Cashew. Peanut Almond. Chai Spice (The No. 1 seller and his wife's favorite).
The jars also represent preparation for a time when Big Spoon Roasters is a much larger company. Though nutrition facts aren’t required for companies who sell 75,000 or fewer units of product each year, he added them anyway.
Though he's getting the infrastructure in place to grow faster, Overbay will continue to be careful about growth—don't expect to see Big Spoon in large grocery chains. His products require explanation about the care put into each jar, and the price reflects that. Jars are priced $9.95 to $13.95.
“It’s on the shelf right next to almond butter that is twice as big and half as much money,” he says. “We created our own category of food, which means consumer education.”
Small independent retailers tend to sell surprising amounts of nut butter—that's because workers at shops like Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Southern Whey in Southern Pines take the time to explain the product to their customers.
“They are passionate about food and retail,” Overbay says. “I would love to find 1,000 Southern Wheys.”
Passionate is a good way to describe Overbay too. He still eats nut butter every day, even as he's immersed in every aspect of its creation.
So how does he like it best?
Spread generously on slices of apple.