The Mastermind Behind Cult-Favorite Nut Butter Company Justin’s Shares How He Got His Start
The Make Your Mark series shows you how some of our favorite food brands got their start. Meet their makers!
Spend just five minutes with Justin Gold and you’ll suddenly have the urge to quit your day job, move to Boulder, Colorado, and get a jumpstart on that business idea you once had a dream about when you were a kid. 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?
What was the scariest part of getting off the ground?
Subconsciously I knew that I was taking a risk, but starting a company wasn’t foreign to me. I had seen my family start a small natural foods store, and my mom started her own catering company when I was growing up. Starting something was somewhat normal to me. When you’re in Boulder you’re inspired by everything. You’re inspired by the mountains. You’re inspired by the people. You’re meeting someone starting a nonprofit or tech company or restaurant. Then you go to CU and the library and see people researching. You get inspired by the surroundings, you meet people who’ve been successful. You feel this sense of confidence. I think it’s a combination of everything but I think Boulder was vital.
How many label design iterations did you go through?
The first packaging design (which I loved) was perfect for starting the company. It had this really down-to-earth, mystical, Ben & Jerry’s feel that worked really well at the farmers market and worked for getting us launched locally. Once we had some success under our belt, I wanted a brand that could sell just as well in a Walmart as it would a Whole Foods, as it would in Target, as it would in a specialty foods store. I wanted something simple that could sell anywhere to an adult, athlete, or kid, and something where the nut was the main focus (not me). We created this “heroic” nut design.
What do you think really got people on the Justin’s train?
There were two bankable trends that converged and we got really lucky. People are no longer afraid of (healthy) fats in their diets. We now realize the scientific benefits to plant-based fat sources for cellular development and brain function. Then there was this peanut butter fatigue, so almond butter came into the picture. So those two trends merged and I was right there. Right place at the right time.
Which Justin’s’ product is always in your pantry?
My maple cashew butter. It’s amazing. I love how the maple isn’t very strong. It’s very subtle. It’s not meant to be a sweet spread. It’s meant to be a subtle sweetness.
Tell me how you branched into the candy space? Hello, peanut butter cups!
I didn’t understand why there weren’t peanut butter cups at Whole Foods. Can you not make one that’s healthy? So I started to make my own. These are really good! We launched this organic peanut butter cup that I thought would do well at Whole Foods and it’s taking off everywhere. It’s so special to see that side of the business grow.
And it’s still growing!
So 13 to 14 years in we got to this really huge size. My investors started saying It’s been 10 years, we’d like to be paid back … I didn’t forget! I was like Oh, that’s right! Let’s think about that. How do you pay back your investors? I wasn’t interested in selling the company — I didn’t want anyone to change us or lay off people. Finally I started having conversations and there was one company that said We love what you do, we wouldn’t change that at all. So in 2016, Hormel bought our company. They’re really excited about maintaining our values. It’s been super super fun. I feel so lucky and fortunate.
What’s next for Justin’s?
Nut butter-covered nuts. There are two ways you can innovate. You can create products that have never been done before (squeeze pack nut butters) and then you can take something that’s already been done and make it better. Nut butter-covered nuts blur the line. It’s not a naked nut or a yogurt- or chocolate-covered nut. It’s not as healthy as a raw or roasted nut. It’s kind of in between. Let’s see how it does.
Any other nuts you’re interested in tackling? Please share.
Every nut will have its day! I really feel like cashew is the next nut that we had to kind of crack. As we continue to grow, we will see (based on sustainability, availability, and consumer trends), what are the next nuts that we want to support and grow.
What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
The advice that I give is to just get started. If you don’t start somewhere you’ll never end up anywhere.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.