I love peanut butter. I want to date it, marry it, and have its kids. It’s probably because I wasn’t allowed to eat it when I was a kid. My mom believed my metabolism was too fragile (slow) for such a fatty-licious snack. But let me tell you, I happily make up for that bizarre deprivation on a daily basis.
Some people can’t imagine starting their day without coffee. I am loath to start my day without two thin slices of Braeburn apple, a thick piece of sweet and savory black forest bacon, and a heaping spoonful of peanut butter. Justin’s Peanut Butter.
I’ve been stalking Justin since his very first showing at the Boulder Farmer’s Market back in 2005; so, when I sat down to talk to him about Justin’s, what it’s like to be the CEO of a natural foods company, and life in Boulder, I felt like I was talking to an old friend.
Here’s what he had to say.
What’s your story? Were you selling lemonade on the street corner as a kid?
No. I was definitely not entrepreneurial as a kid. I grew up in Pittsburg, studied environmental law in college, and planned on being a lawyer. As luck would have it, I took an internship my senior year and learned very quickly that a career as a lawyer was not for me.
So I headed to Boulder thinking I would go back to school. I was attracted to the lifestyle, the academic community, and the friendly people. As soon as I arrived, I knew Boulder was it for me.
While I was contemplating my next academic move, I was mountain biking a lot, working at REI, waiting tables, and making my own butters. At the time nobody was adding flavors to butters; however, I was putting blueberries, chocolate, and anything else I could think of into mine.
I’d put my butters in glass jars in the cupboards and my roommates would devour them. In a worthless attempt to stake my territory, I started putting my name on the jars.
One day one of my roommates encouraged me to sell it at the Farmer’s Market and the next day I was knee deep in researching everything I needed to do to set up shop.
I started visiting the CU business school library to research how to write a business plan. A professor saw me, asked what I was doing, and all of the sudden I had a mentor who played a huge role during those initial days.
I raised money from friends and family and debuted at the Creek Festival in 2003 and the Boulder Farmer’s Market in 2005. After that I started adding a few local stores and grew from there.
Growing the company was tough. I did all of the work myself while working at REI and waiting tables. I’d make the butters at night, make deliveries on my lunch hour, and barely get up for air.
Then, I had an idea about how to get the help I needed.
I went to Whole Foods and wrote down the name of every company that sold a product in a glass jar. I found a company in Denver that would allow me to use their facility to make my butters on nights and weekends at a price I could manage. I did that for 3 years. My life was my butter, which was exciting, but I knew I couldn’t keep up at the pace I was going.
That’s when a routine mountain bike ride turned into one of the most important moments for my business.
I was taking a break on the trail and when I pulled out the energy gel from deep in my jersey pocket, I realized what my body really wanted wasn’t sugary carbs, it was protein. I decided right then and there I was going to start making squeeze packs.
Easier said than done however since none of the 5 squeeze pack manufactures would touch a peanut product with their machines. Eventually I did find a 30-year old squeeze pack machine and I got a loan from my roommates parents to purchase it. It was the kind that used to make the shampoo samples they would stick in magazines, which is why my squeeze packs look decidedly different than others.
Next, I rented kitchen space with Bobos and we worked side by side for 2 years.
When I first launched the squeeze pack, I thought it was going to be huge. I imagined all of the cyclists and runners grabbing one from the energy bar aisle and then heading off to log some substantial miles.
But it didn’t sell. And I was confused.
As it turned out, so were my potential customers. They had no idea what it was and its placement next to energy bars and energy gels made no sense to them.
So I changed course and moved the squeeze packs next to the jars of nut butters. When I did that, it took off. All of the sudden it became a healthy snack with built in portion control. And maybe even more importantly, it became a trial size. Almond butter isn’t cheap and not everyone is up for buying a $12 jar of almond butter without giving it a try first. I solved that problem.
Soon Whole Foods was asking to put the squeeze packs in all of their stores nationwide and I was in way over my head.
I wrote another business plan in the hopes of getting some substantial investment capital but nobody bit. Because I was unable to prove I could deliver a return on investment, I was pushed aside.
Not to be deterred, I pulled together a board of advisors who were prominent in the Boulder food scene and I wrote them into my plan. I also found my number one in Lance Gentry, former VP of marketing at Izze Beverage Co, and everything started coming together.
I started going to bigger and bigger companies to help us with manufacturing, I came up with the idea to produce natural peanut butter cups and fought the naysayers who said I was crazy to try and compete with Reeses, and it finally felt like all of the hard work was paying off.
Then in early 2011 Lance was diagnosed with a brain tumor and he died in June of 2012.
That loss was devastating not only to me but my entire team. Lance wasn’t just the President, he was one of the best guys I’ve ever known and not having him around hurt.
Because of what Lance had put in place, and because we believed in what we were doing, we managed to keep the company together and moving forward.
Then, in late 2013, Peter Burns left Celestial Seasonings and came to work at Justin’s.
I now work with a team of 30 people, we love what we do, and though it took longer than I ever anticipated, I’m living the dream I imagined for this company back when I put my name on that first jar back in 2002.
What do you love best about doing business in Boulder?
Boulder is what has defined this company and why we’re successful.
- People here love supporting local natural products.
- All the industry icons live here and they make themselves accessible to you.
- There’s a high concentration of high net worth people who invest in small companies that care about health and wellness.
What are your big goals for Justin’s?
Peter has taught me the value of the word “no” and right now I’m taking his advice and focusing on the fundamentals of the business.
My goals are to focus on producing a safe, consistent, and high quality product and to become the next Boulder iconic brand that’s all about healthy snacking, sustainability, and community.
What are some things Justin’s does to give back to the community?
In the past we’ve partnered with organizations such as the Boulder Humane Society and the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance; however, the partnership we’re most excited about now is our work with Conscious Alliance, and in particular the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Children on this reservation go hungry on average once per week and 63% of the people live below the poverty line. We love being able to give back to the people who need it most.
What do you like best about living in Boulder?
I love how the people of Boulder value work as much as play. There’s this belief that if you get your work done, then you deserve to get out and play. Nobody feels the need to apologize for taking care of themselves, riding at lunch, or taking a day off to ski some powder. There’s a really healthy balance here that you don’t find on the East and West coasts.
The other part I love about Boulder is the academic intensity and entrepreneurial community that has developed here. Everyone you meet is doing something interesting, if not downright extraordinary, and it’s inspiring to be in the middle of it all.
If someone is new to Boulder, what do you suggest they see or do?
What is your favorite place to drink, relax and meet with friends in Boulder?
Favorite brunch spot?
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own business?
The SBDC is a great resource and one that I used a lot when I was getting started. The CU business library, the Conference on World Affairs, and the lectures around campus are also great local resources. Finally, an organization that is just getting its legs, Naturally Boulder, is a great place to check out for those who are interested in starting a natural products business.
I’d also just say that starting and running a business is hard, things always take longer than you expect, and the most important thing you can do for your business and your own sanity is find a network of people who will support and encourage you when you get stuck. I feel so lucky to have found the mentors, advisors and friends I have in this community and I know for certain Justin’s would not be on the map today if it weren’t for them.
Want to keep track of Justin and his nut butters?
Check out all of the delicious treats you can make with Justin’s nut butters here.
Follow Justin’s on Twitter.
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