Jaime Foster remembers when she first thought she’d hit it big with her new company, NaturAlmond. A big Friday night was making 200 jars of almond butter, hand applying labels and tying bows on each and every jar, all in preparation for Saturday morning at local farmers markets. “It’s pretty comical to think about that time, but there was a lot of love and pride in those jars. It’s fun to see how much we’ve grown since then.”
NaturAlmond (pronounced “natural almond”), started in 2012, is now Georgia Grinders Premium Nut Butters.
Foster and her husband Harry started with an almond butter recipe created by her grandfather in the 1970s. “My grandfather, Jim Hinsdale, was innovative in everything he did. A typical engineer, he was determined to do everything a little bit better. Someone had given him a jar of almond butter and he thought, ‘This is good. But I can do better.’” Hinsdale perfected his roasting and grinding process and shared the results with family and friends across the country.
Foster remembered the pride he took with his almond butter and when she was considering a change of careers, building on her grandfather’s legacy seemed like the right thing to do. He passed away just last year at the age of 97, but Foster had the chance to take him to one of the nation’s largest natural and organic food shows where he sat at their booth and saw how his recipe inspired a successful national brand.
When they started, the Fosters began getting their product in front of customers by selling at the Sandy Springs and Marietta Square Farmers Markets. After a while, they began to look for wholesale clients. “We’d knock on the doors of specialty gourmet shops around town and were honored when someone wanted to buy one case of our almond butter. We’re forever grateful for those retailers who took a chance on our products.”
Oli + Ve, Lucy’s Market and Savi Provisions were among those first early customers. “And Whole Foods was very supportive. It was a smooth and streamlined process to get in with their local program.”
When they began, their only product was almond butter made from the original recipe. Gradually they added three flavored versions. “But we realized we had a great team in place and our own manufacturing facility, so why were we limiting ourselves to almond butter? Georgia is known for peanuts and pecans, so we perfected our recipes for those nut butters. And decided to incorporate ‘Georgia’ into our name. That’s when we became Georgia Grinders Premium Nut Butters.”
Visit their manufacturing facility in Chamblee and you will find yourself immersed in a sea of roasting nuts. On one side of the facility, almonds are roasted and then loaded 30 pounds at a time into the grinder. They’re ground once, then ground again. If they’re destined to be a flavored almond butter like Maple-Caramel, the seasonings are added to the nuts before they’re ground. Jars are hand-filled with the resulting smooth butter (or crunchy if that’s the variety being made) and each jar is hand labeled. It’s small batch work, all done by hand.
Peanuts go through the same process, but are roasted and ground in a separate facility next door. There’s not even a door connecting the two parts of the operation.
The fragrance is intoxicating although you can imagine that smelling it day after day might take the gloss off this product. But Travis Cole, brand manager, says he still enjoys the company’s products. His favorite is the pecan butter and he often eats it straight from the jar. “And I’ve started putting pecan butter on my roasted sweet potatoes. Awesome.”
Graduating from doing everything themselves, the Fosters now employ 12 people. Some are full time and some are part time staff who work at the farmers markets and special events.
Yes, they’re still at farmers markets because Foster says it’s the best way to get direct customer feedback. “And we want to support the local community and the local food movement.” In addition the original markets of Sandy Springs and Marietta, they are now at the East Atlanta Village, Peachtree Road, Grant Park, Alpharetta and Freedom farmers markets and at the Chattanooga farmers market. “We have passionate employees who love getting out there and talking about the product, interacting with the customers.”
Distribution has grown substantially from those first gourmet specialty shops and Whole Foods Market. Georgia Grinders’ products are now in The Fresh Market, Kroger and Publix stores as well as available at flagship gourmet markets like Balducci’s and Eataly in New York, and gourmet and health food stores around the country.
Each order is ground to order. “We pride ourselves on small batch production so that when it hits the shelves of our retailers the butters have as close to a one-year shelf life as possible. We have the capacity to make 500 jars an hour, but we don’t do that. We build each order as it comes in and keep just enough inventory for our farmers markets, online orders and small retail orders.”
The peanut, pecan and cashew butters are made in what was the original 1,000 square foot facility. They expanded next door and added another 5,000 square feet, but now that’s just not large enough. They’re looking around the Chamblee area to find another facility, maybe as large as 25,000 square feet.
Their original almond butter is still their best seller, but the cashew butter has quite a following. The pecan butter won a 2017 Flavor of Georgia award and now Foster says they can’t keep it in stock.
“At the farmers markets, you just never know what will be the most popular. One day it’s the Honey Roasted Almond Butter. The next week it’s the Salt Free. We’ve found there’s no rhyme or reason to what our customers choose.”
Their newest innovation is putting their almond and peanut butters into three-ounce resealable pouches. “They’re perfect for traveling. You can just throw them in your bag and the TSA won’t take them away. They’re great for hiking and camping instead of carrying around a glass jar.” And the pouches are invaluable for dealing with one of the downsides of all natural nut butters – the separation of the solids from the oil. Just squeeze the pouch and like magic, the nut butter is perfectly mixed.
As for advice for other folks thinking of become food entrepreneurs, Foster says to trust your instincts. “It’s definitely risky. It’s not easy or everybody would do it. There’s never going to be an ideal time so just follow your gut and go for it. You can have the perfect business plan in place but you have to take that first step. You will learn so much regardless of whether you sink or swim.”