When I was pregnant with my son, I often found myself grabbing a big spoon and digging into the nearest jar of peanut butter. I quickly realized that the spoonful was exactly what I needed to give me a little extra boost of energy. Plus, the flavor just couldn’t be beat. To this day, whenever I make my two-year-old a peanut butter-filled snack, I can’t help but lick the spoon.
Do you know who else appreciates the flavor of nut butters? Mark Overbay, Founder of Big Spoon Roasters. If you love nut butters, then you are going to want to get your hands on one of their unique nut butter flavors. Big Spoon Roasters makes handcrafted nut butters from scratch in Durham, North Carolina. Each small batch is made to order with the best possible ingredients sourced directly from local and like-minded producers.
From the story of how the company got its name to everything that goes into a single jar, I loved learning about Big Spoon Roasters, Mark Overbay, and the products.
Why feature the business in the Small Business: 15 Questions series? Even though the process isn’t simple, Big Spoon Roasters is making it simple for people to enjoy and cook with unique nut butters that are fresh, nutritious, and delicious. What’s not to love?
Mark’s story is incredible. His products are mouthwatering. His passion is contagious. Let’s get to know more about Mark and his company, Big Spoon Roasters…
15 Questions with … Big Spoon Roasters
In 1999, you traveled to Zimbabwe, discovered a “deliciously fragrant” peanut butter, and encountered a big revelation. Upon your return, you were determined to “recreate that unforgettable peanut butter experience” that you had in Africa. Why was that peanut butter experience so unforgettable? What made the peanut butter in Africa so special?
That revelatory experience of fresh, handmade peanut butter in Zimbabwe was special for a number of reasons! First of all, the flavor was exceedingly delicious. Having eaten many brands of peanut butter growing up, I naively thought that I had tasted the spectrum of flavors peanut butter had to offer. I was so wrong! The fresh-roasted, handcrafted version I had in Zimbabwe offered a mouth-watering interplay of roastiness, sweetness, and saltiness. It also had a coarse texture—created by pounding the fresh-roasted peanuts in a mortar and pestle—that made the peanut butter more toothsome, yet still spreadable. Even if this peanut butter experience didn’t create a spark of thought and inspiration, and it did, it would still be unforgettable simply because of its heavenly flavor and texture.
Beyond the taste experience, that peanut butter made me think about food, cooking, and especially the production of the foods in the jars and containers that line our pantries in a very different way. Here was an undeniably sublime version of what most Americans would consider a satisfying, yet relatively ordinary pantry staple: peanut butter. In my world, peanut butter had always been thought of as an inexpensive “kids’ food,” or a food for indulgent adults reliving the tastes of their childhoods. What I tasted in Zimbabwe was simply an amazingly delicious food, and no other categories needed apply. It did not take much of a logical leap to realize that the incredible flavor came from not only the quality of the fresh ingredients, but also the care and craft that went into hand harvesting the peanuts, sorting them, roasting them over open fires, pounding them with stones, and then mixing the butter with honey, and/or sugar, salt, and coconut oil.
That peanut butter made me think, “Why can’t everything in our pantries be this good?” 10 years later, I sought to answer that by starting Big Spoon Roasters.
Have you always loved nut butters? How has your passion for nut butters grown over the years?
Yeah, for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved eating peanut butter, almond butter, tahini, and other nut butters that I’ve come across. Making nut butters for a living, sourcing the ingredients, and getting to know people on both sides of the supply chain (from farm to retailer to end consumer) has grown my passion. I never go a day without eating a nut butter as part of a meal or snack, usually both!
How did you transition from making nut butters in your home kitchen to launching Big Spoon Roasters? What did you enjoy most about the transition?
It took a lot of self motivation, as well as encouragement from friends, family, and our community to make my passion for making nut butters into a business. At our first public event—a cycling race—in early January 2011, we set up a table and offered free tastes of four nut butters, nut butter bars, and peanut pecan butter cookies. We really had no idea how it would go over, but people were so complimentary and gave us a shot in the arm to take the business a step further. I applied to a local farmers’ market and started selling there in March 2011, renting local bakeries in downtown Durham at night to roast nuts and make nut butters after my work at my day job ended. I did that for a year before devoting myself full-time to Big Spoon Roasters in spring 2012.
I love eating peanut butter by the spoonful. So, I have to ask … do you love eating peanut butter by the spoonful too? Why the name Big Spoon Roasters?
Of course – that’s the best! The name “Big Spoon” is a tribute to my dad, Gary, of Kingsport, TN, where I grew up. One day, when I was six-years-old, I walked into the family kitchen to find my dad having one of his favorite snacks—a big spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar. I blurted out, “big spoon!” and the nickname stuck. To this day, my friends from Kingsport still call my dad “Big Spoon,” and well, there was no question about what we were going to name the nut butter business.
Based out of North Carolina, you turn to local and regional peanut farmers. Why do you enjoy working with farmers in your area? And, I can’t help but ask … how many pounds of peanuts do you go through every year?
The “African Runner” peanut variety arguably makes the best peanut butters due to its perfect ratios of fat, protein, and fiber. They roast very evenly and have just the right texture for milling without the need for added oils. A type of Runner peanut was what I tasted in Zimbabwe, and it just so happens that Runners are grown throughout NC and the American South. We also source locally grown pecans and local raw wildflower honey. More than a commitment to local, though, we have a commitment to supporting like-minded producers who value peerless quality and sustainability equally. We try to seek out such partners as suppliers and as retailers (wholesale customers).
We are growing, so our output is constantly changing. We are still tiny by industry standards, but let’s just say that I used to buy peanuts by the box full and now I buy them by the pallet.
Your brand is built on quality because you believe food matters. Why do you enjoy preparing and sharing food with others?
I try not to over-romanticize food, but food is sacred to me. What we eat literally becomes us, and our food choices directly affect not only our personal health, but also the health and well being of our communities and global ecosystems. Arguably the most intimate relationship we have with living things beyond emotional bonds of love and family is via food; it is also great connector to others via history, culture, and the immediate pleasure of eating. Cooking and sharing a meal with others is joy for me, and I am so grateful that Big Spoon Roasters allows me to experience that joy every day that someone eats the food we make.
For all of your products, you measure, mill, mix, make batches, jar, and pack everything by hand. Why is it so important to make your products by hand?
For me, cooking is also a way to be present in the moment, to focus on the task at hand, and to try and instill artfulness, care, and quality into a shared experience. We are not luddites and certainly use electricity to run our mills, natural gas to heat our ovens, etc., but I do think that there is an innate quality in the handcrafted process we employ that would be lost if automated and left to machines. Natural ingredients change throughout the year. The chemistry of salt, the texture of nuts, and the intensity of honey all change due to environmental factors. We follow our recipes, but we are also constantly tasting and making micro adjustments to achieve the Big Spoon Roasters signature flavor profile and texture.
Your nut butter flavors range from peanut to Chai spice. You also launched a new line of nut butter bars. How do you stay creative in the nut butter business? What or who inspires you?
Honestly, I try not to pay attention to the “nut butter business” and focus instead on what inspires me and our team of employees to be our best every day. If we focus on the quality we produce in every moment, we’ll stand the best chance of achieving our goals.
I’m inspired by so many people, places, and things. At this moment, I’m most inspired by the elegant beauty of the visible universe; how the energy transfer of a lightning bolt, frozen in time, looks almost exactly like the branches of a tree reaching toward the warmth of the sun, or like capillaries moving blood to thirsty cells, or like the tributaries of a river seen from far above. If all life is a form of energy transfer, then I want my life to transfer positive energy that can be felt by others. One vehicle for that is nut butter, I suppose!
How do your products simplify time spent in the kitchen?
I’m not going to lie – making nut butter and/or nut butter bars from scratch is time-consuming and labor-intensive. We hope that our nut butters and bars offer people the homemade quality everyone seeks but doesn’t always have time to produce themselves.
Your website’s blog shares recipes that are making my mouth water. What is your all-time favorite recipe that includes your product?
My wife Megan makes homemade nut butter cups from pure dark chocolate that are AMAZING. Every time we have a dinner party, I ask her to make them (or her meringues). I will post the recipe!
I have two rescue dogs and have always been a dog lover. I noticed that your online shop includes a t-shirt with a cute dog on it. What’s the story behind the dog?
We are animal lovers to the core and the proud owners of two Vizslas—Rioja and Gruner. Our first Vizsla, Riley, who passed away last summer, was a wise, playful, inspiring soul who made us fall in love with the breed. We hope to always have at least two Vizslas around!
Through the business, we also give to several animal welfare-related charities, and of our favorites to support is the Durham-based Coalition to Unchain Dogs. Please check them out!
What are you most excited about this year?
We are introducing a new nut butter recipes that I’ve been working on for months, as well as a new nut butter bar. Also, we are introducing new, improved packaging for our bars and planning to invest more in their production, which will hopefully make them more available to our customers.
As a small business in the food industry, what is helpful advice for other small business owners?
I do not claim to be an expert, but I have discovered that to start and run a business—food or otherwise—you have to dedicate your life to it. I guess I would boil down my advice to: Invent something new or improve upon something; don’t simply try to repackage something or hop on a trend. Those businesses usually fail. Also, only do it if you love it and feel that you MUST do it.
When you’re not making nut butters and growing your business, what do you enjoy doing? What are some of your favorite spots in North Carolina?
I love spending time with Megan, Rioja, and Gruner the most. A perfect day involves a hike with them, a trip to our local farmers’ market, cooking at home, and a good bottle of wine. I also love travel, reading (everything), watching movies, and looking for the perfect apple (an obsession).
So many great places in NC! We love the mountains in the western part of the state (Valle Crucis, Boone, Asheville, Bryson City) and the Outer Banks in the Atlantic Ocean. Our hometown of Durham … we would not want to live anywhere else!
Why do you love what you do?
It’s fun, rewarding, and hopefully making a positive difference in the world beyond my kitchen. Thanks so much for taking the time to notice our work and for such thoughtful questions, and if you are ever in NC, please look us up!
P.S. Use the code SIMPLIFY on their site to receive 15% off all purchases until 4/1/2016.
Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored by Big Spoon Roasters. Photos provided by Big Spoon Roasters. We really love supporting small businesses. Do you run or work for a small business? Click here to find out how your small business can be featured.