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A Brand Built with Heart & Soul

Taking a look inside Justin’s
By
  • Ethan Watters

September 6, 2019

Category
Story

Starting Up

Being a newbie to the food business, Gold had to withstand a withering series of rejections and technical roadblocks, particularly in the early days. Hearing him tell the story, it becomes clear that his success wasn’t simply about perseverance and not taking no for an answer. He approached every setback as a puzzle from which to learn.

The year after jars of Justin’s® nut butters had made the initial jump from the farmers market to Boulder-area grocery store shelves, Gold had a eureka moment while on a mountain-bike ride: he realized that athletes would love a lightweight, portable protein option in the form of single-serving squeeze packets of almond butter. He believed so strongly in the idea that he borrowed against everything he owned to buy the equipment to make the packets, then convinced a local grocery store to stock them alongside its energy bars and gel packs.

Justin Gold at the Boulder farmers’ market in 2004

Justin Gold at a Boulder farmers market in 2004

Gold was certain the new format would be a winner, but for a moment it looked as though the effort had been a colossal mistake: the buyer at the store called to tell him to come pick up the product. His squeeze packets just weren’t selling.

Gold was devastated, and as a last resort, he pleaded with the store to move his packets next to the jars of peanut and almond butter. Suddenly, Justin’s packets started to sell. Because of the context provided by the packets’ new location, customers didn’t have to try to figure out what purpose these unfamiliar little containers served. They got it. The inexpensive single servings also proved to be a great sample size. Once customers tried the small squeeze packs, they often came back to buy a whole jar.

Because he has his own name on every one of his products, Gold has an intimate relationship with his brand. The naming was more accident than hubris. He started making his nut butters just for himself but found his hungry housemates were always helping themselves. So, he labeled his jars with his name to remind them to keep their hands off. It was when that tactic failed to work that he first realized he might have created a product for a wider market. One of his roommates even convinced his own father to be an early investor.

“I didn’t understand the value of a brand persona. You’re in control. You create the company that you want to go to work at and then all of a sudden the company becomes an expression of who you are,” he said.

There is a virtuous cycle, the brand becomes your idealized self, and that’s the blessing.

Justin Gold

But he didn’t do it alone. Gold has had many supporters and mentors. The town of Boulder itself played a key role in his story.

“I call it the ‘Boulder trifecta’,” he says. “One, Boulder has a high concentration of successful natural food companies with people who were willing to share best practices. Two, a community of residents whom support not only natural and organic, but local. And Three, a vibrant angel investment network that was willing to take the risk with me. I feel like I had help the whole way.”

Giving Back

For all of this assistance, Gold knows that expressing gratitude is not nearly enough, so he spends a good deal of his time “paying it forward.” On this day he helps a non-profit reimagine school lunch offerings. Later, he devotes an hour to mentoring an intern from Rwanda who is working on a business plan to start a peanut butter business in her home country.

In the late afternoon, Gold drops by the Boulder Farmers Market, one of the first places he sold his nut butter 14 years ago. There he walks by a younger version of himself—a young man hawking samples of his own nut butter mixes. He stops to say hello and taste the product. He already knows the man. In fact, he has a meeting on the books for the next morning to give him some free advice.

While Gold has transitioned from the role of mentee to mentor, he knows he still has more to learn and more to achieve. That’s what made him most excited about his partnership with Hormel Foods, which began two years ago. That affiliation with Hormel Foods, Justin said, “gave us the opportunity to really benefit from their best-in-class food safety systems and operational systems.”

Juston Gold of Justin's standing outside the company's headquarters

These days, Gold’s goal is to make the Justin’s® brand a household name. He’s driven not by the money or simply success for success’ sake; he knows that it’s only by proving his business’ worth on a national scale that he can have the platform to meaningfully influence the food system.

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to the consumer,” he says. “The consumer drives everything. If we don’t win in the marketplace, then everyone has the right to say, ‘Hey, look, what you’re doing isn’t working. The vision you guys have for the future of food just isn’t reality.’ But if people continue to support Justin’s, and we continue to grow, then we can have a voice and credibility. That’s where real change can occur.”

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