If you follow me on Instagram (please do @livlight_ ), you know that I am obsessed with nut butter. I put it on and in everything I possibly can (think smoothies, oats, fruit, tortillas, etc.)! A few months ago a friend from NYC sent me a picture of Big Spoon Mission Almond Butter and said, “you HAVE to try this…it’s amazing and it’s from Durham, NC!!” The next day I was at my local Whole Foods and bought a few jars (Mission Almond, Cashew Peanut, and Peanut Cocoa). As my family and I tried each one, we were blown away…each was better than the last! We love most nut butters, but Big Spoon is in a league of it’s own. You can literally taste the quality of the ingredients and the love that goes into each handcrafted jar.
I was so excited to get in touch with Mark Overbay who started the company with his now wife Megan in 2011. The inspiration for Big Spoon actually came from a decade before when Mark was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999. He had learned how to make nut butters the authentic way (think, roasting nuts over an open fire and pounding by hand between stones) and couldn’t find any nut butter that was similar or as delicious in the States.
Mark explains that the key to their success is using the best ingredients they can source, which is why we love them so much at LivLight. As you probably know, I believe the key to health is giving our bodies the best foods we possibly can.
Our quality starts with sourcing the absolute best ingredients I can find. We could easily decrease our costs and increase margins by sourcing commodity-grade ingredients, but compromising quality in any way is simply something we will never do. Other food business owners I know poke fun at me about the lengths I go to in sourcing ingredients, and our wholesale customers like to joke about how long it takes us to roll out new recipes, but I believe that taking the time to do things as well as possible to be a foundational principle of our business and a key ingredient in our success. –Mark Overbay
Over the past five years, Mark and Megan have gone from selling at their local farmers’ market to being sold in hundreds of store nationwide and have expanded to 11 types of nut butter and two nut butter bars with lots more in the works! Read on for my interview below with Mark to learn more about Big Spoon Roasters. I hope you’ll give it a try and let me know what you think! Click here to order online or here to find a store where it is sold near you.
Interview with Mark Overbay, Big Spoon Roasters
Why nut butter and how did you get started?
Nut butter has been one of my favorite foods for as long as I can remember, and upon reflection, it’s easy to see why. Nut butter, and specifically peanut butter when I was young, offered a delicious combination of richness, roastiness, sweetness, and salt. To me, the best food experiences of any kind offer this kind of flavor and texture variety in every bite, and nut butter can do this very well. I honestly don’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t eat some kind of nut butter daily.
Some people have a “sweet tooth.” Well, I have a “Maillard reaction tooth,” or a “caramelization tooth,” if you will. Boiled, steamed, and poached foods can be fine, especially in a pinch, but give me high-heat roasted, baked, fried, and crispy on the edges any day. I’m not an advocate of blackening everything into charred submission, of course, but in the world of cooked foods, nothing gets me going like the complex, rich sweetness of caramelization. I’ve always sought out the charred edges of toast, the thin layer of crunchy sweetness on roasted carrots, and the crunchy blooms of perfectly roasted broccoli. The greatness of nuts, coffee, seeds, root vegetables, alliums, and many other foods is unlocked when roasted with high, dry heat.
Salt is also a great love and perhaps my favorite ingredient in the kitchen. Pablo Neruda wrote that in salt, “we taste infinitude,” and I agree. There are biological reasons that salt tastes so good to us; the human body cannot survive without ingesting sodium, which is uses to transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscle fibers (including those in the heart and blood vessels), and maintain a proper fluid balance. So, we crave salt. It makes our mouth water. It brings out sweetness. It enhances acidity, or brightness, in food. It opens up the umami of protein. With roasted nuts, it coaxes out sweetness that otherwise wouldn’t be noticed and gives that roasty-brown flavor a mineral punctuation note that I love.
As a side note, even taking nut butter out of the question, nuts and legumes (like peanuts) are the perfect foods. They grow easily in diverse climates, fix nitrogen in the soil, are sublimely delicious and satisfying, and also offer an impressive combination of nutrients such as antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999, I helped my host community harvest small backyard plots of peanuts, which were then roasted over open fires and pounded by hand between stones as coarse salt and coconut oil was added to taste. Some families added a touch of local honey, sugar, or fresh coconut pulp. The deliciously fragrant, mouthwatering peanut butter was a revelation to me that forever changed the way I thought about the packaged foods in our pantries. Even though I had loved to cook for years already, I had never considered that all the pantry staples I had taken for granted as packaged, processed foods could be made so much better at home using better ingredients and care.
Ten years after returning to the states and frustrated by the lack of fresh-roasted, made-to-order nut butters available, I started to make my own with the peanuts, pecans, and wildflower honeys available to me locally in NC. Since I knew that literally no one else in the country was making nut butter like this, I believed that I could turn my passion for making the best possible version of my favorite food into a business. It turns out, thankfully, that I was right! My then girlfriend, now wife, Megan and I officially launched the Big Spoon Roasters brand in January 2011 at a cyclocross race in Chapel Hill, NC, and we started selling at the Carrboro (NC) Farmers’ Market that spring. I kept my marketing job at Counter Culture Coffee for the first year and then went full-time with Big Spoon Roasters in spring 2012.
How is Big Spoon SO good?!? What sets it apart from all the other nut butters out there?
Our quality starts with sourcing the absolute best ingredients I can find. We could easily decrease our costs and increase margins by sourcing commodity-grade ingredients, but compromising quality in any way is simply something we will never do. Other food business owners I know poke fun at me about the lengths I go to in sourcing ingredients, and our wholesale customers like to joke about how long it takes us to roll out new recipes, but I believe that taking the time to do things as well as possible to be foundational principle of our business and a key ingredient in our success.
As one example, when I decided to introduce an almond butter after making peanut- based butters with local NC peanuts for more than a year, I spent nine months sourcing more than 20 almond varieties from various growers and co-ops in California before finding the perfect almond: the heirloom Mission variety, which was discovered in Texas around 1900. It’s naturally sweeter, crunchier, and denser than most other almond varieties, and it’s the only almond we will every use. It also requires less water to grow, so it’s win-win for quality and sustainability, which is usually the case.
Also, we don’t use the word “handcrafted” as a marketing slogan, as we literally make everything by hand, from roasting nuts and measuring salt to labeling and filling jars. We don’t do things by hand for some kind of romantic reason tied to nostalgia for the ultra trendy pre-industrial aesthetic; we do it this way because it produces the best quality. By handling and inspecting every small lot of ingredients by hand and controlling every fine detail of the production process as the ingredients move through the milling, mixing, jarring, and tasting phases, we build in quality control at each step. Ingredients change over time and from lot to lot, even from the same producer, and we often have to make recipe changes on the fly to hit our target flavor profile that balances roast, salt, and sweetness. By having complete control over every aspect of production, we can make these changes easily without interrupting output.
Our signature coarse texture is another aspect of our nut butter that sets us apart. One of the qualities I loved the most about the fresh, handmade nut butter I helped make in Zimbabwe was its very coarse (i.e. having a large nut particle size) texture. Our ideal nut butter is still spreadable, but you can see and feel each individual piece of milled nut. When I started this business, I had custom stainless steel milling plates made to approximate this texture, and we still employ custom milling plates today, although now the plates are slightly larger.
We also make every jar of nut butter to order, without exception. So, we don’t make anything until it’s already sold, and everything customers receive was made just for them. That commitment to freshness means that we say a polite “no” to many grocery stores that want to work with us, but only through a third-party distributor, because making to order means that we also need to ship directly as soon as orders are ready. We apply this same made-to-order standard to orders via our online shop, as well.
It’s a challenge, but we are really trying to change the way people think about nut butters, which can be astonishingly delicious, fresh foods made with care and craft.
Why and how should we eat it?
The “why” of eating most foods is obviously tied to personal tastes, and any given person may or may not like the flavors and textures we create. Beyond taste, I hope that the way we run Big Spoon Roasters is appealing to people who want to support businesses with integrity, a lens of sustainability on every decision, living wages and competitive benefits for employees, a culture of customer service, a focus on innovation, skillful craft, and an unceasing commitment to delighting our customers.
Do you have a favorite recipe using a Big Spoon product that you would be willing to share with LivLight readers?
My favorite nut butter “recipe”:
1. Slice a fresh apple, pear, or both, being careful to cut away seeds.
2. Generously spread nut butter on each slice.
Click here for my Burmese-inspired Dipping Sauce, another great recipe, which was published by Food & Wine Magazine!
And of course, our nut butters are perfect for any piece of toast, English muffin, bowl of oatmeal, or tortilla. Did I just say tortilla? Yep!
What’s a typical day of your eating look like?
Breakfast – It varies, but most days breakfast is a bowl of some combination of fresh fruit, ground flax seeds, unsweetened coconut milk yogurt and/or chia pudding made with almond milk, cinnamon, and a large dollop of one of our nut butters. In the winter, I tend to eat more oatmeal with similar toppings and always nut butter. Coffee is very important, too, and this is usually the only cup I have all day unless it’s 100 out, which calls for a post-lunch iced Americano.
Lunch – My lunches are way more varied and go in streaks, depending on what life brings me on any given day. I take our dogs (Vizslas Rioja and Grüner) out for a 30-minute walk almost every day that I’m in town and then usually make a quick lunch at home afterward. Some days, it’s a Big Spoon handcrafted nut butter bar and a bottle of kombucha. Other days, I love to eat leftover roasted vegetables, olives, some kind of legume, and a whole avocado with salted veggie chips, rice, or another grain like quinoa.
Snack – Fresh fruit. Handfuls of dried fruits and nuts, fresh apples with a test recipe for a new nut butter (I’m always working on something), or a Big Spoon bar.
Drinks – My wife Megan and I love wine and often have a couple of different bottles open with dinner (but we don’t finish 2 bottles a night!). We also love lemonade and the occasional cocktail – nothing too involved or fancy, but often involving gin, fresh herbs, citrus, and a drop of an aromatic. I grew up in Tennessee and studied abroad in Scotland, so I have had strong bourbon and single malt stages in my life. I’m kind of over them, though (sorry, y’all).
Dinner – I love to cook. I don’t claim any particular skill, but it’s my meditation and a form of personal expression that I need to feel like my true self. As a consequence, we rarely eat out and cherish every night at home together. Luckily, Megan is quite happy with this arrangement, and our dogs don’t complain either! Most dinners consist of a huge seasonal salad (we are lucky to have lots of farmer friends), another smaller salad with complementing textures, something crispy and roasted, a condiment like hummus, pesto, or romesco, and fish.
Dessert – I really don’t have a sweet tooth, but I love dark chocolate and ice cream, which is like a food group for me. I’m really into coconut-based ice cream these days. Not to be preachy, but we try to source any animal-derived ingredient, like dairy, from cruelty-free farms.
What’s up next for Big Spoon?
Hopefully, we’ll be able to make our favorite foods for people for many years to come. In the short term, we’re working on some new nut butter and nut butter bar recipes for release in 2017 and 2018!