You may need to pause in the middle of reading this interview to go get a spoonful of peanut butter and something to wash it down with. Peanut butter is one of those products that feels always classic AND modern. It's a simple pantry staple, but Mark managed to find a rich history and heritage behind it, spurred on by his own appreciation of food, passed down from generation to generation. A big spoon is necessary, indeed.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I've had so many "aha" moments! One that comes to mind, though, is a moment that arrived via a shot of espresso in Washington, DC. It was the summer of 2005, and I was already an enthusiastic home cook who obsessed over ingredients, spent weekends working on an organic farm, had a great job managing communications for the nation's top fresh produce trade association, and had an above-average understanding of how food gets from field to table. However, I had a shot of espresso one day from Murky Coffee, in Arlington, VA, (RIP) that forever changed the way I thought about food and our relationship with it.
I was a bicycle commuter and had built a wonderful weekday post-work ritual around riding my bike to Murky for a shot of espresso with friends before heading home. One late summer day, which ostensibly felt like any other, the barista on bar - my good friend Ryan Goodrow (who is now roast-master at San Francisco's Four Barrel) - did what he always did: pulled a perfect ristretto and set it on the counter for me. As soon as I smelled it, though, I knew it was different than the espresso I'd had the day before. I smelled more than the sweet-roasty-caramel espresso that I was used to; this new bouquet was a dizzying aroma of warm chocolate, coconut, almonds, jasmine blossoms, and even citrus. When I took that first sip, the brightness (natural, pleasant acidity) of the coffee made my eyes pop wide open and blurt out, "WHOA! What did you do?!" Yesterday's espresso was good, but today's espresso was simply extraordinary and I had to know how that could be.
Ryan, ever understated, smiled and said, "Yeah, that's a new blend from Counter Culture Coffee in North Carolina." Huh? A different roaster made that much of a difference? And this roaster wasn't located in Chicago, Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco? I thought I knew a little about coffee, but at that moment, I realized that I knew close to nothing, and that the remarkably different, vibrant flavors I tasted were the result of a craft, agriculture, and world that I had to explore. I wanted not only to have many more food experiences like that, but also to be a part of creating them for others. Nothing had ever been so clear.
I took a chance and reached out to Counter Culture's visionary co-owner, Peter Giuliano, and asked if there was any need for someone like me. Turns out, there was, and I packed up and moved to Durham and joined a coffee renaissance tucked away in a stand of Carolina pines. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made, and my years at Counter Culture certainly played a part in inspiring the genesis of Big Spoon Roasters.
How did you get your current good food job?
I love nut butter. Is there a better way than italics to communicate emphasis, because I really LOVE nut butter. For as long as I can remember, I've eaten some form of nut butter just about every day: almond butter on toast for breakfast, peanut butter with apples for lunch, a thick, spicy satay sauce made with ground cashews with dinner, etc. One Saturday in the fall of 2010, while sanding some pieces of wood in my Durham, NC, back yard, I was thinking about the organic, "all natural," grind-your-own peanut butter I had just eaten with an apple. Like the dozen or so other brands of peanut butter I had tried (even mail ordered) since returning from my Peace Corps service in Zimbabwe (1999-2000), it was pretty good but severely lacking compared with the crazy-delicious, archetypal peanut butter experience I had in my Zimbabwean host community, where small-scale farmers harvested and roasted fresh peanuts before crushing them by hand with a mortar and pestle and folding in salt and honey. The resulting "peanut butter" was a coarse, fragrantly roasty, and perfectly balanced food that seemed to go well with everything.
It occurred to me that Saturday in 2010 that here in NC - surrounded by peanut farms and beekeepers - I could probably replicate that fresh, handmade peanut butter in my home kitchen. Then it occurred to me that I had never heard of anyone, anywhere, making and selling fresh-roasted, small-batch nut butters crafted with the best possible ingredients, transparency, and a dedication to real sustainability. I immediately ran inside the house and started searching around the web... nothing. I had confidence in my palate and cooking ability, so I thought that this idea might not only be a good way to cure my major nut butter jones, but also work as a viable business. Then I thought: what nut butter would be the most representative of the North Carolina Piedmont where I lived? So I conceived of Peanut Pecan Butter made with fresh-roasted peanuts, fresh-roasted pecans, raw local wildflower honey, and sea salt.
I made a trip to the food co-op to buy some raw peanuts (I had the other ingredients in my pantry already), and I made my first batch. It was good - really good. I knew I had something, so I started a business.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I believe that all of our experiences shape us in some way, and that every moment of our past informs decisions that we make in the present. I grew up in a family that gardened, hunted (respectfully, for food), and treated food with reverence, and I will always carry that heritage with me. As a kid, I was never forced to clean my plate, but I was taught that wasting food was immoral and that our food choices not only affect our health but also the lives of farmers, cooks, and others and that make our meals possible. The understanding that a "supply chain" is really a link of human lives drew me to Counter Culture's work in coffee, and it informs every decision we make at Big Spoon Roasters.
I am also lucky enough to know grandparents who weathered the Great Depression and fought in World War II; their experiences have given them immeasurable wisdom and perspective, which they are always glad to share with me when I need it most. My Liberal Arts experience at Davidson College challenged me to think critically and become a better writer, honing skills that helped me carve a career in journalism, marketing, and communications focusing on food and nutrition. My experience as a Senior Communications Analyst at the American Diabetes Association's national office gave me a world-class education on the myriad connections between nutrition and health, helping inspire my stalwart dedication to using only the best, whole ingredients in both personal and professional cooking.
The experience managing e-commerce, marketing, and branding for Counter Culture Coffee exposed me to nearly every facet of running a craft food business, helping build the confidence to start my own. Three and half years into running Big Spoon Roasters, I am very much still a newbie at running a business, and I am learning a tremendous amount every day.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
I'm too optimistic to ever consider quitting. If I believe something is possible, then it's just a matter of figuring out how to do it. I've always followed my heart, and every professional decision I've made was driven by a passion to make a difference, a sincere interest in learning something new, or both. Not every decision is easy, though, and my lack of experience in some areas of business have certainly chipped away at my confidence, but I've been able to overcome such areas of inexperience by leaning on my amazing community of friends, family, and advisers.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
When we taste something simply delicious - like a sweet, juicy heirloom apple or a leek caramelized over hot coals and flecked with sea salt - there is a basic, almost primal emotional response that can't be duplicated by anything we can synthesize in a lab or factory. For years, though, so much of our food industry has focused more on scale and efficiency than taste, pleasure, and sustainability. Sure, we need to scale some food production to feed our population, but we've gone too far.
I created Big Spoon Roasters, in part, as a response to the over-industrialization of one of the world's simplest pleasures and most prevalent pantry staples - peanut butter. How many other pantry staples are not as good as they could be? There are SO many opportunities for small food businesses focused on reinventing and simplifying the foods we eat every day. People like April McGreger of Farmer's Daughter Brand and Jessica Koslow of SQIRL are doing this with jams and preserves. Other examples of small food businesses injecting quality back into classic, now over-industrialized food categories are Empire Mayonnaise, Taza Chocolate, King's County Jerky, Gordy's Pickle Jar, and Fat Toad Farm Caramel.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
I'd gladly take lessons on starting an heirloom apple and pear orchard from my friend Lee Calhoun, an "All You Can Eat for Life" card at Toast in Durham, NC, or a wine subscription curated by my buddy Jay Latham. Money doesn't interest me, but living a full, vibrant, and delicious life interests me a great deal.