Michael Kanter’s business idea for Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters, a company known for its out-of-the-box peanut butter flavors, started with a lot of curiosity and a belief that people are drawn to innovation.
Kanter was an aspiring chef working his way up the career ladder in several local restaurants in the Portland area, with the goal of owning and managing his own restaurant someday.
After working at various food outlets, “I’d learned a thing or two about myself,” said Kanter. “My passion was more for experimenting with the flavors in food itself. Involvement in restaurants was only one way of expressing that passion.”
His curiosity took over. One day at home, while researching business opportunities at his computer in the Eliot neighborhood of Portland (hence, the company’s name), and snacking on Thai-flavored peanuts, he wondered how the spicy peanuts would taste if they were ground into peanut butter.
“I went downstairs, poured the bag of peanut into the food processor, and thought, ‘these are just as delicious as peanut butter as they are by the handful,’” said Kanter. “Then I thought, ‘why can’t there be more savory or spicy nut butters?’”
He tested his ideas on friends and family; creating several combinations and flavors. “Savory flavored peanut butters just seemed like a natural path. Peanuts are so familiar to people and there’s already a strong market for peanut butter. I’m just taking what people already love and creating new tastes and combinations that people may not have thought of before,” said Kanter.
Kanter launched Eliot’s Adult Butters in November of 2013 and began testing his products at holiday shows in Portland and Seattle the following month. Response from the shows confirmed his hunch that savory adult butters could be popular.
“At first, I was afraid people were just being polite by trying samples. But when we beat our sales goals, I began to see that people were just as excited about these new flavors as I was,” said Kanter.
“As a chef, I began to see I could build on the idea that peanut butter is just a canvas for great flavor,” said Kanter. “People who tried our spicy Thai peanut butter said things like, ‘This would save me time or could be a short-cut for making recipes delicious. All I’d have to do is open a jar of peanut butter.’”
Fortified by early feedback, Kanter honed in on three consistent favorites—Spicy Thai Peanut Butter, Garam Masala Peanut Butter and Honey Chipotle Peanut Butter. Recently, the company introduced Espresso Nib Peanut Butter.
It took just three months for the products to gain the attention of local grocery stores, and from there to be picked up by national retail outlets. Today, Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters are sold in about 150 stores in 14 states and online.
The first measure of success brought a fresh set of challenges. “My first goal was to learn how to start a food business and then if I had success, I’d keep running with it. Then what?”
Finding suppliers, filling orders, shipping product—even learning how to get bar codes for grocery store shelf—were all challenges taken on in rapid succession.
Kanter describes himself as a big picture person, “so I’m always thinking about the future. Right now, Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters is a small business, but if I don’t try to be a big company, I’m not setting myself up for success.”
But Kanter believes his company passed the first test for success when he took his innovative peanut butters to the public to gauge consumer demand. “We all have food we cook at home, or our grandmothers made, that we think is delicious. But the true test of viability comes when we know there’s a market for our product.”
He goes on to say, “What I feel good about is adults have eaten peanut butter since childhood and they love it. I just ask, ‘how about if I put some extra flavors in—some out-of-the-box taste to try—what do you think about that?’ I feel I’ve awakened some peoples’ love for peanut butter all over again.”