The nut-butter entrepreneur has a certain knack for questioning the status quo, which is how his business came to be in the first place.
Like a lot of food businesses Justin’s was born in Justin’s kitchen, after he questioned the dearth of nut butter options on grocery store shelves. With his personal food processor, he started to crank out custom nut butter concoctions that his roommates couldn’t keep their hands off of. From there, it took years of grinding for his organic, natural, and sustainably sourced products to land on grocery store shelves and in pantries across America. But how though? We’ll let Justin tell you.
You say “the most important thing is just to start.” What was that moment for you with Justin’s?
I moved to Boulder, Colorado, after college and was waiting tables. I’m a vegetarian and was eating a lot of peanut butter and almond butter for protein. Here I am, eating all this peanut butter, and I was just kind of curious: Why is it that there are only two types of peanut butter (smooth and crunchy)? And why is it that there’s only one brand of almond butter and it doesn’t even taste good? I’d been to enough stores where they have their own grind-your-own peanut butter machines, so I decided to start making my own.
What was your creative process like?
I would just make it in the food processor and take cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, fresh bananas, dehydrated strawberries, peppers, etc. and then get to experimenting. Then I started to get all of these jars and number them and put them in the fridge. My roommates started stealing the ones that they liked. Then I started to put my name on the jar. They were like, have you ever thought about turning this into a company?
I launched at a farmers market and sold some jars to a few stores, like Whole Foods and natural grocers, and would do demos. I had a commercial kitchen to make my nut butters and was still waiting tables, doing everything at once.
What was the turning point? When did this go from hobby to legit business?
So three to four years go by working the farmers market and I’m not making enough money. I’m still working a second job, paying everyone but not paying myself. I’m struggling but I haven’t realized it. Then I go on a mountain bike ride and I’m eating one of those power gels. I’m like Man, these are really good, but why isn’t anyone putting protein into a squeeze pack that I can take on a trail? I did some research and found that there were two companies that make squeeze packs for everyone. I asked if they would make them for me. They were like Sorry, we can’t help you, we don’t want to process tree nuts at our facility.
At first I was really bummed. And then I got my own squeeze pack machine. I borrowed $75,000 from my roommate’s parents and found this really old squeeze pack machine. I took it, started making my own squeeze packs with it, and started selling into local stores.
It took off for two reasons. The nut butter pouches were like nothing these stores had ever seen before. We don’t have anything like this. They had jars of almond and peanut butter, but they didn’t really have flavored. What was really fascinating is that once the squeeze packs were in stores, our jars started to sell really well too. Because the pouches were like buying their own trial. Once jar sales started to pick up, everything just kept growing from there. I was able to raise money from angel investors and develop a brand unique to my personality.
How big of a role did Boulder, CO, play in starting your business?
I graduated from college in PA and moved to California for a little bit. (Not my people.) I ended up coming to Colorado for two reasons: one, I love the mountains, and two, Boulder was a university town. I thought I wanted to go back to school eventually. When my friends told me to turn my nut butter hobby into a business, I went to CU business school library and used it to write a business plan. Then I started to realize all of these great natural food companies that are located in Boulder. I started to reach out and ask things like How do you sell to Whole Foods? How do you find a distributor? What’s the difference between USDA and FDA?