From farmer’s market to industry leader

By Rebecca Firkser
Updated June 13, 2018
Credit: Photo courtesy Justin's

Nut butter fans out there know Justin’s as one of the best. With unique flavor combinations—like maple-almond, chocolate-hazelnut, and honey-peanut—and a thick, smooth texture, Justin’s nut butters are one of a kind. While the founder, Justin Gold, has believed in the power of nut butter since even before he started his business, he saw the most success after launching the first nut butter squeeze packs, which are just as easy to squirt onto a piece of toast as they are to suck directly from the packet during a commute. I spoke with Gold on the phone to learn how he creates his nut butter flavors, his go-to green smoothie, and the future of nuts.

Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast today?
Justin Gold: You’re going to think I’m kidding, but it’s totally true. I actually have this for breakfast almost every day: It’s a green nut butter smoothie.

Yum! What’s in that?
Where do I start—there are a few key ingredients, and the first one is a good blender. I use a Blendtec, which is kind of similar to a Vitamix. So, I add kale—probably three to four leaves and I de-stem it, a little bit of frozen spinach, about half a frozen banana—I keep bananas peeled in the freezer, so I’ll take half a banana and cut that in half again, and put that in the blender. Then, a scoop of vanilla Vega protein, then—this is gonna sound crazy but it’s true—I do a scoop of wheatgrass powder, then a small scoop of hemp hearts, another key ingredient: a small scoop of chia seeds, and then I do two tablespoons of almond butter, then I add a little bit of soy milk, a little bit of water, a little bit of ice. Then, blend, baby!

I have this like every morning. I usually wake up early, get my workout in, and then I have a green smoothie right after. It’s like having a protein salad first thing in the morning, and it keeps me full and energized until lunch. Maybe on the weekends I’ll have pancakes with my kids.

I bet pancakes with nut butter is a great combo too. So, what would you say is your favorite way to eat nut butter for breakfast?
I have two favorite ways. If I’m feeding my kids, I’ll put nut butter on a waffle for them. Instead of syrup I’ll use maple almond butter or honey peanut butter, and that kind of covers up the dry waffle. I’ll also put it on a piece of fruit, like a banana or an apple. Or literally just right out of the jar. But the reason why dads get fat is because we always finish our kids’ food. Normally I’m eating a waffle because my kids didn’t finish it.

I’d love to learn a bit more about Justin’s. Why did you decide to launch a nut butter company?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. I went to a small college, studied Environmental Policy. I really wanted to be an environmental lawyer. And then my senior year of college I was interning at an environmental law firm, and I really just became disillusioned with what being a lawyer was. So I dropped out of the LSAT course, didn’t go to law school, graduated from this Environmental Policy program. Then I moved to Colorado and started waiting tables. I moved to Boulder to be near the university, because I knew I wanted to go back to school someday. And it’s close to the mountains. So I’m living in Colorado, waiting tables, working in restaurants.

I’m vegetarian, so I was eating a ton of peanut butter and almond butter for protein. I would walk to the grocery store and see a whole shelf of different preserves, jams, jellies. But then I’d look at the nut butter section, which was tiny. There were literally just two types of peanut butter, smooth or crunchy. It didn’t make any sense. And then I thought, Why is it that when I ate a handful of almonds it tastes amazing, but when I bought the one brand of almond butter that was available it tasted kind of gross? You could just grind your own nut butters at the store, so I thought, How hard could this be? So I just started experimenting and making my own. I would keep a journal of what I added, I would try honey, fresh banana, dry banana; I’d add strawberry jelly, dehydrated fruit. All these different concoctions—cinnamon, chocolate, maple syrup. I’d put them in all these jars and I’d put them in the cupboards. I was living with a bunch of roomates at the time and they’d always steal my nut butters, so literally I had to write “Justin’s” on the jars so they knew it wasn’t for them to eat. My roomates just loved them, and they’d always ask for more “Justin’s.” And I thought this could really be a fun business.

I didn’t know anything about starting or running a business, but what I did know was how to use a library. And Boulder has a business school, so I went to their library and I started to research how to write a business plan. As I was working on the plan, I wondered if there were any natural food companies in Boulder that I could ask for help from. My mind was blown that there are a lot of natural food companies here, from Celestial Seasonings, to Horizon Organic Dairy, to Izze Soda to Rudy’s Organic Bread. So I was able to find a lot of smart professions who helped me learn how to grow and scale the company.

I started with the peanut butter and almond butter. We debuted at the farmer’s market and I was going to stores. I was still really struggling when I’d been in business for about four years. I went on a mountain bike ride. I was on the ride and eating an energy gel, and I thought to myself, This gel is great, but I don’t want sugar right now, I want protein. I thought, Why isn’t anyone putting peanut butter or almond butter into a squeeze pack? And literally no one was doing it. I thought, This is such a silly idea, clearly it can’t be done.

So then I started calling around, and it turns out there are basically three companies that make squeeze packs for everyone—mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, jelly—everything. I asked if they could make me squeeze packs of peanut butter and almond butter and all three of them said they couldn’t help me. None of them would make it because of allergies, a fear of cross-contamination. Once I heard that, I was like holy shit, once I get my own squeeze pack machine, I won’t have any competition. So I found a 20-year-old machine that makes squeeze packs. We started making squeeze packs, and then we started to get people’s attention, because we were making something new and interesting. It gave people an opportunity to travel with it, or have a trial size, or even have portion control. That’s when things really took off for us. But also we were super-lucky with the timing, we basically made almond butter famous because no one was making it or giving it the credit it deserves.

That’s so interesting. Even though you were making these great nut butters, what really set you over the edge as a company were these unique extra products.
It’s a blessing and a curse, because now there’s all this expectation that I have to create something that’s really special, so now we’re trying all these new things to see what people connect with. It’s fun, but you want to make sure you create things that are purposeful, that solve a problem.

Your flavors are all unique too, and you mentioned writing ideas down in a notebook when you first started. So, how do you come up with your flavor combinations now?
When I first started, it was really all about the farmer’s market. And when I was there I must’ve had 12 different flavors to try. And someone would come up and want to try them all. And then they would say, “Do you have plain peanut butter?” They loved all the flavors, but wanted something they could have every day. What I learned from the farmer’s market was that our top flavors were the simplest ones, honey, maple, and classic.

Well I eat the maple almond butter straight from the jar with a spoon, so I get it.
It used to be my favorite until we created maple cashew. They’re much more rich and buttery, and the maple interacts different with the almond than with the cashew. Almonds can be a little bitter so the maple balances that, but with the cashew it really enhances their flavor. Yet for peanut, I really don’t think the maple works. Peanuts are a little musty in flavor and when you add the maple it just doesn’t work as well.

I want to create products that people are going to use every day. So I want to find things that are really sensory yet really simple. Nothing too sweet or too salty. So, for me, it’s about trying to find that middle ground—I don’t want to eat really complex food. I think people just want to eat foods they recognize. I think what people love about nut butter is that there aren’t a whole lot of ingredients there, and the ones that are there, people know how to pronounce them and maybe where they come from. I really like that.

What’s next for Justin’s? Are there any new products that you’re excited about?
So, “the future of nuts,” which is what we’re calling it right now, revolves around three categories. One is nut butters. I think we’re always going to explore new nuts, whether it’s differents seeds, legumes, or nuts. The next area is around confection—the way I look at it, the world doesn’t need new candy; it needs better candy. When we create a candy product, we have really high rules: It has to be 100 percent organic, come from conflict-free chocolate, and it has to have a protein component from nut butter. And then the third avenue, which I think is really endless, is around snacking. So we’re looking at snack mixes, different bar and bite concepts, and of course they’re all going to have this healthy nut butter component.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.