New to the Outdoors: Justin’s spreads to specialty outdoor retail

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.
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One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

The outdoor industry was a natural fit for Justin’s, whose CEO and namesake Justin Gold is a former REI team member and avid mountain biker, skier, hiker and runner. It’s just taken him awhile to push his assorted nut butters to that realm. Although the brand began in 2004, last August was its debut appearance at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. As Gold said, Justin’s had to “earn it.”

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“For me the outdoor industry has always been this mountain that I wanted to climb and I hadn’t earned the opportunity to climb,” he said. “After 10 years of being in the natural food industry and selling to grocery and being focused and disciplined on what I had learned would drive success for the company, I finally felt like I’d earned the opportunity to exhibit at OR and start marketing this to my own people.”

Earned it he has. Among other local and national accolades, Justin's ranked in the Top 15 on the Inc. 500/5000 Fastest Growing Companies list in the Food and Beverage category two years in a row. In 2013 Ernst & Young named Gold Entrepreneur of the Year in the Mountain Desert Region.

The brand is making a name for itself in the grocery industry as an all-natural alternative to Jiff and Skippy, but it’s broadened its scope with flavored almond butters — maple, vanilla, chocolate — and a chocolate-hazelnut butter, in addition to the standard peanut butters. Those looking for a more natural alternative to Reese’s turn to Justin’s for its peanut butter cups, available with dark, milk and white chocolate coatings.

Gold’s idea, like so many other innovations, sprang from necessity. A determined vegetarian frustrated by the lack of “good” nut butters available, he began making his own, stockpiling his stash in kitchen cupboards, much to the joy of the climbers with whom he lived.

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“My dirtbag roommates would always steal them and eat them, so I literally wrote my name on [the jars,]” Gold said. “That got ‘Justin’s’ Nut Butter stated.”

From there, he began selling his butters among the packed booths of Boulder’s bi-weekly farmer’s market. It remained a side gig however while he worked his then “dream job” as a frontline man at REI, handling customer service and cash registers and selling “a ton” of energy gels, Clif Shots and Honey Stingers. His butter business was going well, but it hadn’t spread.

“I was on a mountain bike ride eating an energy gel, and I was like, ‘I don’t want a sugary carbohydrate. Why isn’t anybody putting peanut butter into a squeeze pack?’” Gold said. That was when he found his hook. “We were struggling with jars. It wasn’t innovative or compelling. The squeeze pack idea really changed the whole business. It created a whole new subcategory of innovation for nut butters.”

Gold adds that the 1.15-ounce “knead and squeeze” packs have become more than he anticipated, morphing into portion-control options and trial sizes, in addition to on-the-go packs. Justin’s took its protein-packed snack and made it portable, which he points out, could be an alternative to a gel.

Plus, nut butters are high in energy and versatile, making them a great backpacking item. Add them to oatmeal, eat them straight as dessert or spread them on an apple for a snack.

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“We’re just simple, wholesome ingredients. We’re not trying to create a performance product, just really good peanut butter and almond butter,” Gold said. “Nut butters are known for being nutritious and fueling lifestyle with great protein and great fat. We’re just making a great nut butter in a very convenient package.”

Not that Justin’s hasn’t run into a few barriers as it steps into the outdoor market, the biggest of which has been distribution. As a company without a direct-to-retail infrastructure, Justin’s relies on distributors, Gold explained. Within the grocery realm, where Justin’s has already made a splash, that distribution network is centralized with roughly 50 top chains controlling the bulk of the market. Conversely, the outdoor industry is highly decentralized.

“There’s thousands [of retailers] and you have to find each one. Do you use reps, go to shows, look for them directly? It takes a lot more work,” Gold said. But that’s why Justin’s came to Salt Lake City last August. “OR is great because the customers can hopefully find you.”

For Justin’s, the limited selection of foods making the cut in the outdoor market offers a great branding opportunity. Think about those few products that have earned shelf space at the checkout counter of your local outdoor shop; we trust them to get us through a grueling hike or an epic powder day.

“It provides authenticity to the brand. It shows that you belong on a backpacking adventure or a bike ride because it’s being sold alongside products that promote that lifestyle,” Gold said. “A lot of people go to grocery stores and take our stuff skiing and, it would be nice to offer it right where they’re doing the activities.”

--Courtney Holden

Does Justin's have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.

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