Meet the Maker - The Founder of Big Spoon Roasters
5 minute read
Say hello to Mark Overbay
Why nut butters? What drove you to your chosen craft?
For as long as I can remember, nut butters (particularly peanut butter and almond butter) have been among my favorite foods. Peanut Butter spread thickly on a slice of bread was a favorite childhood snack, and during a summer spent in New Orleans just after graduating college, I practically subsisted on peanut butter, pretzels, bourbon, and ginger ale (in that order).
In fact, I’ve eaten some form of nut butter just about every day: almond butter on toast for breakfast, peanut butter with apples for lunch, a thick, spicy satay sauce made with ground cashews with dinner, etc. One Saturday in the fall of 2010, while sanding some pieces of wood in my Durham, NC, back yard, I became hungry and thought about the organic, “all natural,” grind-your-own peanut butter from the local natural food co-op I had in my pantry. Like the dozen or so other brands of peanut butter I had tried (even mail ordered) since returning from Peace Corps service in Zimbabwe (1999-2000), it was pretty good but severely lacking compared with the crazy-delicious, handmade peanut butter experience I had in my Zimbabwean host community, where small-scale farmers harvested and roasted fresh peanuts before crushing them by hand with a mortar and pestle and folding in salt and honey. The resulting “peanut butter” was a coarse, fragrantly roasty, and perfectly balanced food that seemed to go well with everything.
It occurred to me that here in NC – surrounded by peanut farms and beekeepers – I could probably replicate that fresh, handmade peanut butter in my home kitchen. Then I realized that I had never heard of anyone, anywhere, making and selling fresh-roasted, small-batch nut butters crafted with the best possible ingredients, transparency, and a dedication to real sustainability. I immediately ran inside the house and started searching around the web… nothing. I had confidence in my palate and cooking ability, so I thought that this idea might not only be a good way to cure my major nut butter jones, but also work as a viable business. Then I thought: what nut butter would be the most representative of the North Carolina Piedmont where I lived? So I conceived of Peanut Pecan Butter made with fresh-roasted peanuts, fresh-roasted pecans, raw local wildflower honey, and sea salt.
I made a trip to the food co-op to buy some raw peanuts (I had the other ingredients in my pantry already), and I made my first batch. It was good – really good. I knew I had something and friends and family agreed, so I started a business.
Describe a typical day in your life. Work and non-work related!
My wife and co-founder, Megan, and I usually take turns getting our two energetic Vizslas out for exercise on the trails first thing in the morning, usually starting around 5:30am. When it's my turn, she usually goes for a spin class, and when it's her turn, I get an early start on the day's reading and email. I worked in coffee for years before starting Big Spoon Roasters, and the morning coffee ritual at home is very important to me. My breakfast for years has been what people now call a "smoothie bowl," essentially a bowl of fresh-cut fruit and some combination of plant-based yogurt, seeds, and nut butter. Always nut butter.
For the first four years of the business, I lead day-to-day food production and got started roasting and mixing around 7am. We have a fantastic team who lead production now, and now use the first hour or so of the work day to catch up on email and create to-do lists for the day or week until about 8am, when I head into our headquarters and roastery to connect with our team, take meetings, work on operations, marketing, and product development, etc.
When possible, I still personally deliver wholesale orders here in Durham, and I typically knock those out in the late morning before heading home for lunch and another exercise session with our dogs, Grüner and Rioja. I'll spend the remainder of the afternoon back at HQ or in offsite meetings before going to the gym.
Food and cooking have always been important parts of my day, and I try to make dinner from scratch every evening, usually with ingredients purchased from our local farmers' markets on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookending my day with making and eating healthy, delicious, and nutritious meals keeps me connected not only to the joy and craft of cooking, but also to our local agricultural community and the bridge between good nutrition and, well, feeling good. If I'm not in bed by 10pm, it must be a special occasion!
What does handmade or handcrafted mean to you?
For many companies out there, these words are probably just slogans and buzzwords taking advantage of food fads, but to me these words literally mean to make something by manual skill. I have visited a food factory in which the ingredients and food never touch human hands; they don't even touch small wares held by human hands. Oh, and that factory was making foods for a number of brands that claimed attributes such as "handmade" and "handcrafted." That will never be us.
Our commitment to working in small batches allows us to ensure consistent, exceptional quality. Every batch of nut butters and bars we make comes out of our roastery. We roast nuts, chop fruit, toast granola, and add carefully measured ingredients by hand. We also personally inspect every jar and bar; and we taste every batch before we package it. This process is part of our DNA, and we will never outsource production, even as we grow. This commitment to keeping everything in house not only ensures the best quality, but also creates good jobs for our team. We are a proud founding member of the Durham Living Wage Project and offer a robust benefits package.
What's the hardest part about being an entrepreneur and the best part about being an entrepreneur?
The hardest part of my entrepreneurial experience has been maintaining patience and focus when so many new brands continue to pop up in our category that clearly borrow not only marketing, but product decisions, from innovations we have made organically. We welcome competition, because we are confident that we continue to set the standards for integrity, flavor, and freshness in our categories, but it can be disheartening when a buyer that has shown interest in us brings on a lower-quality, less-sustainable, less-transparent competitor, usually because they offer a slightly lower price point. All we can do is continue to make the best possible versions of our products every day, live our values, and lead by example. Quality, integrity, sustainability, and transparency never go out of style, and we will continue to lead in these areas.
The best part is the joy and delight of our customers. We never take our customers for granted, and we give them our best efforts every single day.
Who is your role model and why?
I have so many! In business, one of my role models will always be Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. His life has been spent pursuing his passions and creating products that have helped him and millions of others in similar pursuits. When he felt that rock climbing accessories were marring the beauty of his beloved mountain faces (because they were permanently left embedded into rocks), he taught himself blacksmithing and invented a new category of reusable climbing tools that changed mountain climbing forever. When he needed sturdier shorts, he learned pattern making, cut pieces of canvas, and designed his own. With his leadership, Patagonia has innovated in countless areas connected with quality, sustainability, and transparency. Everyone, especially those thinking about starting a business, should read his book, "Let My People Go Surfing."
Ready to taste Mark's products?