In 1982, 6-year-old Mark Overbay walked into the kitchen and saw his father, Gary Overbay, eating a spoonful of peanut butter right out of the jar.
"Big spoon!" Mark blurted out. From that day forward in Kingsport, Tenn., his father would be known as Big Spoon by Mark's buddies. It would also become the name of his nut butter company, Big Spoon Roasters, recently established in downtown Durham.
Overbay has been fortunate to experience a number of food-related, life-changing moments, "big spoon" being his first. During his time volunteering with the Peace Corps in 2000, he watched tribesmen in Zimbabwe roast freshly picked peanuts over an open flame, then immediately crush them on a stone into the paste we often pair with jelly and bread.
"As much as I would love to roast each batch over an open fire and crush them with stones, it's not practical," he said. But watching that process lifted the flavor potential for his favorite food, peanut butter, to soaring heights, much higher than the jarred stuff found in grocery stores, which typically contains the federally required minimum of 90 percent peanut content to still be considered peanut butter. Most commercial spreads have also been combined with palm oil to prevent separation, and copious amounts of corn syrup.
Another aha moment came in 2005 with a roasted bean of a different sort: his first sip of Counter Culture Coffee. He was living in Washington, D.C., at the time and considered the coffee so sublime, so literally life-changing that he immersed himself in the coffee world and quickly came to the Triangle with the sole goal of being hired by the company.
Counter Culture needed help with its e-commerce department, and he soon wrote a job description for a marketing and communications manager, a position he filled and maintains today.
Overbay refuses to take full credit and consistently points to his fiancée and business partner, Megan Lynam, with whom he founded Big Spoon Roasters in late 2010. (By day Lynam is the director of admissions at Duke's Fuqua School of Business.)
Big Spoon Roasters recently received a major boost from Bon Appétit. The food mag heard about the pecan-peanut butter oatmeal cookies the company sells at the farmers market (where it also peddles Lynam's homemade energy bars) and published the recipe in the November 2011 issue.
Overbay buys his nuts from local farmers and includes local wildflower honey (honey contains medicinal elements unique to its environment) along with a minimal amount of salt in his basic nut butter recipes.
He also adds a scant tablespoon of organic coconut oil to each 30-pound batch for a creamier texture. Many organic butters use palm oil, but he feels the negative environmental impact associated with producing palm oil is not worth it for his product. (Tropical forests are often clear-cut for the palm trees, which are grown at the expense of indigenous crops.)
Overbay spends several nights at Ninth Street Bakery in downtown Durham, where he roasts small batches of split Georgia Runners in the bread ovens at a high heat for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the nut. He also makes peanut butters blended with almonds, pecans and cashews.
If he roasts more nuts than he needs for one batch, he saves them, but not for long. "I really make it my goal to get the nuts in the jar within 24 hours of roasting," he said. "That's key."
After the nuts cool, Overbay places them into a small grinder similar to those found in grocery stores, resulting in a coarser blend that gives a bite to the finished product.
Once the nuts, honey, salt and oil are combined, an industrial-size mixer does the rest, and he lets the enormous paddle blend the nut butter a full 20 minutes. He then meticulously spoons the nut butter into each jar, using the same seemingly ordinary spoon for each jar. He insists upon Mason jars for his product so the taste stays pure. He accepts the empty jars from customers to recycle.
"I want people to think about peanut butter the way they think about bread," he said. "Buy it fresh, just as much as you need for a week or so, and eat it every day."
That's what he does. Midmorning he enjoys what he calls his "second breakfast"—a schmear of his nut butter on sliced apples.
Out east in the small town of Plymouth, big things are happening with the local legume known as the Virginia Bunch.
Chris Smith, who co-owns Mackeys Ferry Peanuts, chooses to make his peanut butter with a Virginia Bunch because it is bigger than most, and considered to be the "Ball Park" of the peanut world.
Smith and his wife, Sharon, are high school sweethearts who both attended N.C. State University. They never imagined they would own and operate a peanut business, and yet there they are—on the way to the Outer Banks, across the road from one of the nation's largest gun shops.
"We're in Martin County, and Martin County grows more peanuts than any county in North Carolina," Smith said.
They make 20-quart batches of peanut butter—adding molasses for a sweetener—so they can lift the machinery on their own. They also roast and grind small batches, a process that requires a lower temperature and maintains the integrity of the peanut's flavor.
In 2003 the couple purchased the business, which opened in 1983, after Smith was laid off from his job at a paper warehouse. Their sons encouraged them to buy the business, and quickly the Smiths started adding items to the company's peanut repertoire, including brittles and nut-chocolate confections.
"Basically we're a peanut bakery, but peanut butter is our top-selling item," Smith said. "It is all natural—we do not have preservatives, no stabilizers."
Correction (Dec. 7, 2011): Megan Lynam's last name was spelled correctly in the first mention but incorrectly (Lyman) in subsequent mentions.