Inside Durham’s Big Spoon Roasters

Mark Overbay checks on a batch of roasted nuts. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

Handcrafted Nut Butter Bars & Spreads Made from Scratch

Long before starting his nut butter brand, Big Spoon Roasters founder Mark Overbay had always been an aficionado of sorts when it comes to peanut butter and almond butter. They’ve been among his favorite foods for as long as he can recall.

His love for peanut butter shifted into something more in the late 1990s when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural farming community in Zimbabwe. There, he observed local families making their own nut butter recipes and learned firsthand how to roast, grind and mix ingredients to form the perfect taste combination. Overbay returned to the U.S. eager to continue the hobby.

After spending a just over a decade honing the craft, he and his wife, Megan, decided to make a business out of it. Big Spoon Roasters officially launched in 2011.

They’ve been serving up delicious small-batch gluten free and vegan peanut butter bars and spreads ever since.

Big Spoon Roasters’ handcrafted nut butter bars are a favorite of Produce Box members. There are plenty of flavors to choose from, including cherry pecan, cranberry cashew, figgy chai and apricot pepita. They boast unique features including 100% plant-based non-GMO pea protein ingredients and a long shelf life.

Big Spoon Roasters’ handcrafted nut butter bars come in several flavors. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

Big Spoon Roasters’ handcrafted nut butter bars come in several flavors. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

We wanted to sit down with Mark to share the story of his company with our members. Enjoy!

Where does your love of nut butter come from?

My father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes when I was 10, and to help support him and the very difficult task of managing that disease (and to hopefully avoid developing the disease myself), I made a point to learn about the connections between food, lifestyle and health at a relatively early age.

Peanut butter was always one of my dad’s favorite and healthiest snack choices because of its low glycemic effect on blood sugar, so it was a perennial staple in our house. In fact, I’ve eaten some form of nut butter just about every day since childhood: almond butter on toast for breakfast, peanut butter with apples for lunch, or a thick, spicy satay sauce made with ground cashews with dinner. 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)!

Mark Overbay is the founder and president of Big Spoon Roasters, a Durham-based nut butter brand. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

Mark Overbay is the founder and president of Big Spoon Roasters, a Durham-based nut butter brand. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

How did you get the idea to start Big Spoon Roasters?

One Saturday in the fall of 2010, while sanding some pieces of wood in my Durham, North Carolina backyard, 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.

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.

What was the response from customers when you first launched?

The initial response to our handcrafted nut butters and bars was overwhelmingly positive and supportive! I’ll never forget the first time we introduced our products to the public: a local cyclocross race held nearby in Orange County, North Carolina, in January 2011. We didn’t have a logo or even matching jars, for that matter, but we had four different handmade nut butters and a few dozen peanut butter-based protein bars to sample out to the riders and spectators.

Before they even tasted what we had in the jars, handwritten labels like “Peanut Pecan Butter” drew people’s attention. We were the first nut butter maker to blend virgin coconut oil into a peanut butter, and we were also the first to blend peanuts with other nuts, such as cashews, almonds, and pecans. When people tasted the fresh-roasted flavor — balanced by raw local honey and sea salt — for the first time, they would beam with joy and ask where they could buy it.

The answer then was, “Nowhere yet, but we’ll be selling at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market beginning in April.” We sold everything we brought to the race that day, even though we had no intention of selling!

When were you first introduced to The Produce Box?

I first heard of The Produce Box in 2008 or 2009. I was very involved with the local chapter of Slow Food USA at the time, and I heard about The Produce Box at the annual Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CSFA) conference. I knew about similar local product delivery models in other parts of the country, and I was excited to hear that someone was trying it in our region.

I finally met Founder and CEO Courtney Tellefsen at the 2017 CFSA conference, and after she tasted a few samples of our nut butters and we had a chance to talk, we decided to work together.

What made you decide to partner with us?

Big Spoon Roasters and The Produce Box have shared values in support of the health of our local communities, so we are natural fits for one another.

Our fresh, handcrafted nut butters and protein bars fit perfectly into the lifestyles of The Produce Box customers, who value taste, nutrition and sustainability in the foods they choose for their families.

Big Spoon Roasters’ handcrafted Apricot Pepita butter bar. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

Big Spoon Roasters’ handcrafted Apricot Pepita butter bar. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

What is Big Spoon Roasters’ own mission?

Our mission is to make the best food possible without compromise. Food matters. Food connects us all, and it should be delicious, nutritious, and good for all those involved in producing it.

Use only the highest quality, all-natural ingredients from farmers and producers we trust. Handcraft each batch to order, creating the freshest possible products for our customers. Never compromise food quality, and let flavor guide every decision.

Engage like-minded partners on both sides of the supply chain: Partner with retailers who respect freshness and turn inventory quickly. Develop collaborative relationships with farmers and encourage sustainable agriculture.

Lead in achieving environmental, social and fiscal sustainability: Attract and develop the best human resources, our most valuable assets. Know our environmental footprint and work toward zero-waste operations. Contribute positively to the communities we touch, from farm to spoon.

What are your proudest accomplishments in building this company?

Every day of running a business brings new challenges and accomplishments, but to be honest, we don’t spend too much time thinking about the past, as we are always focused on how to improve operations, better serve our customers and further enrich our communities. That said, we are certainly proud of what we have achieved!

We won three straight Southern Living Magazine Food Awards (2015, 2016 and 2017) for three different products, and we were the only nut butter maker recognized each year. The Wall Street Journal profiled us as an innovator in the food category in an annual Innovator edition. Bon Appetit magazine featured us as the country’s best nut butter.

The Big Spoon Roasters team. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

The Big Spoon Roasters team. (Photo courtesy of Big Spoon Roasters)

We have achieved at least double-digit growth every year, and we have done so without taking any outside investments.

The employee talent we attract gets better year after year, and we are able to offer very competitive benefits for such a small business. For example, we offer living wages certified by the Durham Living Wage project, full dental and vision coverage, subsidized group medical insurance, annual CSA reimbursement, monthly wellness or gym reimbursement, matching retirement fund contributions, and a free weekly jar of nut butter for each employee, among other benefits.

Read more about Big Spoon Roasters’ small-batch nut butter bars and spreads at their website. You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.