Adequate resources. This doesn’t always mean money. It can mean knowledge, experience, skills, mentorship, equipment, etc.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Overbay.
After graduating from Davidson College in 1998, Mark Overbay joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in rural Zimbabwe. The subsistence farmers he lived with would harvest groundnuts (a variety of peanuts), roast, and grind them into a thick spread. Missing the classic roasty-sweet-salty peanut butter from home, Mark experimented with adding sea salt, honey, and coconut oil to the mix. The delicious result was a revelation that the best foods are often the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, care, and craft.
Still inspired by this experience twelve years later, Mark and his partner Megan started Big Spoon Roasters with little more than a make-shift nut mill and countertop mixer. At that time, nobody was making handmade, small-batch nut butters and the media quickly took note; Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, O Magazine, and Cooking Light all featured their nut butters in those early days. Over the next eight years, Mark and Megan built a great team around them, added a line of handcrafted nut butter bars, and grew Big Spoon Roasters in a deliberate, sustainable way, funding the business with sales and turning down offers of outside investment. Commitment to the business’s founding values of integrity, flavor, and freshness, took precedence over quick money and fast growth.
As the nut butter category has become more crowded, Big Spoon Roasters has stayed focused on what has always set them apart; innovating rather than imitating, with a relentless drive to source the very best ingredients and make food that matters. That commitment has paid off. In the last year, Big Spoon Roasters has been in a significant growth spurt, which has also included notable features in Bon Appetit and Real Simple. To date, their products are available via more than 650 retailers in 42 states and Washington DC, and they ship to e-commerce customers in every state almost daily via bigspoonroasters.com and Amazon. Big Spoon Roasters has also had the honor of having their nut butters and bars featured in backstage green rooms at The Late Show with Steven Colbert, SNL, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Igrew up in the Northeast corner of Tennessee where the Appalachian Trial winds through the mountains. I’m an only child of two wonderful human beings who continue to teach me to be kind, grateful, humble, and committed to the things I care about. A sizeable portion of my family tree was part of the Cherokee nation, a lineage that has informed my reverence for the beauty and balance found in nature.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
A lifelong peanut butter lover, I was not able to purchase peanut butter when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Zimbabwe in 1999 and 2000. Luckily, the community where I lived grew peanuts. In an attempt to replicate the classically sweet, salty, and spreadable peanut butter from home that I craved, a made peanut butter from scratch by roasting peanuts over an open fire, pounding them into a paste with stones, and mixing in raw honey, sea salt, and coconut oil. It was one of the best things I have ever tasted. The deliciously fragrant, mouthwatering result was a revelation that the best foods are often the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, care, and craft. Not until 10 years later, when I had a craving for fresh peanut butter and could not find any, did I have the idea of starting a business selling the kind of truly handcrafted nut butters I made as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In our early farmers’ market days, after a 4:30am wake up and car-loading, I once drove to the 35 minutes to the market without any cash change or way to accept payments, so I had to run around and try to barter cash from other vendors, most of whom didn’t really know me yet. I was basically selling futures on my sales for the day. It was comical, but it turned out ok! The lesson? Use a checklist, and I did after that.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see people make is starting a business because it seems “on trend,” rather than pursuing a personal passion, actually solving a real problem, or filling a void in the marketplace. These “bandwagon businesses” tend to experience more burnout than others because, ultimately, the motivation behind them is hollow. Ask yourself why you’re starting a business in the first place and be honest with yourself.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Do the research:
- Are you sure it doesn’t already exist?
- If not, why? What are the barriers to entry?
- If so, how will your version be better?
- What problem(s) are you solving?
Mention the idea to a few people you trust and see how they react. If they are excited and positive, feed on that. If they challenge your concept, embrace that and use it as an opportunity to convince them why your idea is important. Either way, you have an opportunity to move forward and hone your idea.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Again, research. We’ve never had so much access to free information spanning every subject and industry. Start searching in your field of focus and make a list of practical questions that must be answered for your business to be a reality, e.g.
How will I make it?
Where will it be made?
What regulations are in play?
What materials must I source?
Do I need a partner (or 10)?
What will I call it?
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
This question seems industry specific. If I had an idea to improve upon the toothbrush, for instance, I would not know where to begin so I might consider hiring a consultant to workshop my idea with me. That said, I’m in the handmade, small-batch food business, and my ability to experiment and perfect hundreds of iterations of each product was critical to achieving the standards of quality, sustainability, and freshness that we set as goals.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
We have bootstrapped our business from day one, and that’s allowed us to maintain a values-based approach to operating without compromise, and while not always easy, that approach has worked well for us. We started small at a single farmers’ market and grew incrementally from there. Starting small with relatively low startup costs might not be possible in other industries, though, and therefore venture capital might become more necessary to get out of the gates.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
Wow, I’m glad this one didn’t start with “Quick question!” : )
Filing a patent? Start at the USPTO. They have excellent resources and instructions.
Sourcing raw ingredients? Talk to farmers and gain an appreciation for their challenges, learn as much as you can about soil science, and make decisions that benefit the health of the planet.
Be your own manufacturer.
Start with where you shop. Where you shop probably reflects your values, and so should the products you make.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Values. Your products should embody them.
- Genuine need. Real business opportunities meet needs or solve problems.
- Credible founder experience. Knowing your industry will help you avoid many mistakes.
- Adequate resources. This doesn’t always mean money. It can mean knowledge, experience, skills, mentorship, equipment, etc.
- Customers! If you’re not selling your products or services before you publicly launch, you’re probably not ready to go.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Start with yourself. You have to be sincerely crazy about the product first, and that enthusiasm can be infectious. Then sample your wares and solicit honest feedback. Keep iterating until others mirror your passion.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
- By paying living wages and offering our employees tangible benefits such as subsidized medical insurance, matching retirement plan contributions, subsidized wellness memberships and childcare, no-cost food to take home, and profit sharing, we are helping people in our community not only meet basic needs but also achieve economic and emotional security.
- By creating and supporting mutually supportive relationships with ingredient, packaging, and service vendors who share our values and commitments to sustainability and transparency, we are nudging the food industry in a healthier direction.
- By providing handcrafted foods packed with healthy, natural nutrition, we are nourishing those who purchase or receive our products as gifts or donations.
- By donating weekly to a number of community organizations focused on alleviating hunger and increasing food security, we are making a positive difference in the lives those organizations touch.
- By telling and celebrating the stories behind our ingredients and the people that produce them, we are raising awareness about where foods come from, which leads to more conscious consumerism in our categories.
- By not using palm oil and educating our customers about the environmental devastation created by palm oil cultivation, we are (hopefully) helping prevent further rainforest destruction.
- By packaging our nut butters in glass and steel, we are supporting the use of recycled, recyclable, and reusable packaging materials.
- It may sound hokey, but when someone eats our food and thoroughly enjoys it, we are injecting a bit of happiness into the world. : )
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It would be related to respecting all life, not just human life. We thoughtlessly cause so much suffering to due to our eating preferences alone.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.