Big Spoon Roasters founder looks to boost nut butter production
With a rat-tat-tat, Mark Overbay taps glass jars of Peanut Pecan Butter, made with peanuts, pecans, wildflower honey, and sea salt, on a work table so the butter settles evenly in the jar.
The smell of roasted pecans is in the air. Nearby, a batch of Peanut Cocoa Butter is mixing. Working across from him, Adam Pyburn is scooping up freshly made butter and pouring it into the jars so Overbay can finish packaging.
Overbay peels off the “Big Spoon Roasters” labels, attaches them to the jars, and places the peanut butter jars in boxes so they can be shipped to specialty food shops in Minneapolis, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kansas City.
“I was confident that I made something nutritious and delicious, I didn’t realize how excited people would become to taste truly fresh-roasted peanut butter,” said Overbay, 37, reflecting on the evolution of the nut butter business since he started selling the product formally at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market in April 2011.
Big Spoon Roasters now has about 90 wholesale customers, including Whole Foods in Durham, Wine Authorities, and Parker and Otis. While he’s currently making the product out of the rentable commercial kitchen space The Cookery, which has been the home-based for many food entrepreneurs in Durham, he’s looking to move into his own leased kitchen space on Hillsborough Road in August so he can increase production.
Overbay has about $30,000 in loans from Slow Money NC, a group that helps link up food entrepreneurs with individual investors, to help with the production move. He plans to hire additional workers to help make the product and to handle office work.
“We receive, on average, about almost 30 wholesale inquiries per month, that’s almost one a day, these are stores that want to buy and sell our nut butters, and we basically had to stop growing when we ran into a wall in terms of capacity,” Overbay said. “As our business has grown we simply need more production time and more capacity to meet demand,” he added.
Overbay started the business out of a passion for food, its ability to connect people, and agriculture, he said. He had moved to Durham from Washington, D.C., to take a job in marketing at Durham-based coffee roaster Counter Culture Coffee Co., which he said he’d admired for celebrating the farmer as part of its marketing.
“I just got this sort of spark to start a food business,” Overbay said, after he moved to the Bull City. He said he was sanding something in his back yard at home when the idea for launching a fresh-roasted, small-batch peanut butter company came to him.
Overbay had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999 and 2000 teaching English before he was evacuated from the country. He said he saw people picking peanuts from the ground and roasting them on an upside-down automobile hood above a fire. People would mash them on a large stone or with a mortar and pestle and would eat the butter straight with some salt or honey – not as a relish.
“It was one of the best things I ever tasted,” he said.
Overbay said he was a peanut-butter-eating kid, but his experience in Zimbabwe made him think about it in a different way. He said he realized it didn’t have to be a “bland, waxy, overly sweet” food.
In his home kitchen, Overbay started perfecting recipes. He made a “quintessential Southern” butter with peanuts and pecans, and eventually developed a traditional Peanut Butter as well as Peanut Almond Butter, Peanut Cocoa Butter, Peanut Cashew Butter, and Chai Spice Nut blends.
He named the business “Big Spoon Roasters” for his father, who earned the nickname “Big Spoon” after Overbay, a young child at the time, caught his father eating peanut butter out of the jar with a serving-sized spoon.
“I just thought it was the biggest amount of food you could eat at one time,” he said.
Initially, Overbay said he started operating out of Ninth Street Bakery and Loaf Bakery before moving to The Cookery. He started selling at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, and eventually Overbay left his other job in order to pursue the business full-time. It was several articles in national food publications that kicked the business into high gear, resulting in orders for his products from stores around the country.
He said he now gets his peanuts from a farmer in Edenton, N.C., but hopes to buy more from an organic farmer in Nashville, N.C. His goal for the business is for it to land at the intersection of quality, sustainability and good nutrition.
“I want Big Spoon to be a living for me and my family and for the employees that we have,” he said. “I want it to help support farmers people participating in sustainable agriculture that contribute to the products that we make.”