This article originally appeared on Owning My Own September 1, 2016.
Andy Mason, 28 (left in photo), and Mario Esparza, 32
PB Love Company, which makes small-batch, stone-ground peanut and almond butters.
April 9, 2015
Mario, yes. Andy works part-time.
BEFORE BEING OWNERS, THEY
both worked as servers in some of Denver’s most popular eateries and still do. They met working at Denver’s beloved breakfast empire, Snooze. Mario also worked at Steuben’s and has been with Work & Class since it opened. He previously lived in Texas and owned a business that coached people how to shop, cook, eat and exercise healthfully for natural weight loss. Andy has a bachelor’s degree in studio art and business with a certificate of advertising and spent four years working as an art director and designer in advertising firm. He returned to work at Snooze part time so he could dedicate more hours to PB Love.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Thirteen years ago, Mario lost 100 pounds. And he says he owes a lot of it to nut butters. He was making a conscious effort to eat “real foods” as part of his weight loss plan, and after reading the ingredient list on the peanut butter he was buying from Walmart, he thought he could do better. He made his first almond butter with almonds, coconut oil and salt, and it was part of the inspiration for his original health and wellness business.
Several years later, Mario shuttered the business, moved to Denver and enrolled in the University of Colorado. While visiting a lake with a friend and her new baby, Mario shared some of his homemade peanut butter on an apple.
“My friend said, ‘Holy shit! This is really good! You should sell this. I would buy this!’” he remembers.
He’d been worrying about how he would pay for school without going into debt, and his friend’s enthusiasm gave him an idea. He approached his friend Andy – originally for help designing a logo – and before long, PB Love had a co-founder.
HOW THEY DID — AND DIDN’T — SPEND THEIR MONEY
PB Love’s biggest expense the first year was a nut grinder. Something they wanted and decided not to spend their money on yet? “Another grinder,” Mario says.
He explains one of the biggest initial challenges was figuring out how to scale up his product-making process.
“I knew how to make it at home, but how do you make 100 jars?” he said. At first, it took him two hours to make 10 jars. Now it takes 25 minutes to make 24 jars.
They also save money by sharing commissary kitchen space with a company that makes a handcrafted sun-dried tomato spread. Mario works on that company’s production line in exchange for PB Love’s use of the kitchen.
MOMENT THEY FELT IT WAS REAL
“It hasn’t happened yet.” Mario laughs. (That might be a bit of an exaggeration. PB Love Company was one of three finalists for The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Start-Up Business of the Year award.)
But Mario explained that, when he looks at the business on paper, he still has questions about whether he’ll be able to do it long term. The company is making enough to pay its bills, but Mario continues to work other jobs to supplement his own income.
“But when I see people taste [our products], I think, there’s no way it will fail,” he said. “It’s so good, and it makes people happy.”
Currently, PB Love wholesales its peanut butter to restaurants and sells it to the public in their online store, at farmer’s markets, and for limited hours in their Denver storefront location, which they call the Nuthouse. Mario says he’s had a lot of requests to sell in stores, too, but he and Andy are reluctant, in part, because it would put big demands on their inventory and dictate company growth.
“PB Love’s business model reflects participation within a food system that is more community and local based, small scale, and direct from producer to customer,” Mario said. “Feeding people is a special thing PB Love does.”
He added that any future retail sales “will be small and strategic.” He predicts customers will be unlikely to see jars of PB Love on grocery store shelves, but they may find them, for example, at bagel shops – where you could also get the butters as a bagel topping. Work & Class currently has a Chocolate PB Love Sundae on its dessert menu, and Snooze has used it to craft a Pancake of the Day.
Mario says he started this business to work for himself, but he knows he can’t grow without other people. (PB Love is currently looking for help on its production line.)
“What happens when you become a leader is you start working for [your employees],” Mario said. “One day it clicked in my head that ‘I’m not working for myself at all. When they start sweating their asses off for you in the kitchen, you need to make sure they have everything they need so they’ll come to work the next day. Eventually I’ll be responsible for somebody else’s livelihood.”
SOMETHING THEY’VE STRUGGLED WITH
“Organization and administration.” Mario says. “I don’t like being at a desk. It’s strange and lonely and quiet. I don’t want to be here for two hours entering invoices. That’s one of the reasons I closed my first business.”
He added, “In a dream world, I’d want someone to tell me how much peanut butter to make, and where to go to talk to people about it.”
HOW SELLING AT FAIRS LIKE HORSESHOE MARKET IMPACTED THE BUSINESS
Mario says that because PB Love debuted just over a year ago, “at almost every market we do, people haven’t heard of us. So most of the value of markets, for us, is the marketing.”
They offer product samples at markets, which Mario says has resulted in many useful customer comments. “We learn what the people want, like and don’t like,” he said. “That feedback is so crucial.”
In addition to meeting lots of new customers, Mario says they really enjoy meeting the other sellers at fairs. At Horseshoe Market in particular, they met sellers whose products complement their own, including one who sells caramel and chocolate and another who makes jam. (Read her story here!)
“My compliments to Doug and Amy [who founded The Horseshoe Market],” Mario said. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them.”
BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OWNING AND WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE
“When I work for someone else, I have one job, and I know exactly what that job is,” Mario said. “But this, when I’m clipping my toenails or taking a shower, every aspect of this business is on my mind. Everything is my job.”
BEST ADVICE TO BUSINESS OWNERS JUST STARTING OUT
“Develop yourself and make that a priority,” Mario said. “Take care of yourself. I can’t work 18 hours a day if I don’t take care of myself.”
He added that new owners should understand that achieving goals “will probably take along time,” and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from others who’ve been doing it longer.