By Colin Bane
Boulder-based entrepreneur Justin Gold – founder of Justin’s Nut Butter — has found gold in his concept to market protein squeeze packs and other nut-based products to cyclists and other endurance athletes over the last decade, to the tune of $10.7 million in sales in 2011. We caught up with the self-proclaimed “dirtbag” mountain biker, (a finalist for the Entrepreneur Magazine 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year award, by the way) to see how he’s spending race day when Stage 6 of the USA Pro Challenge makes its way to Boulder.
Something Independent: I understand you’re a cyclist and a cycling fan, so you must be stoked to have the USA Pro Challenge coming through Boulder on Saturday.
Justin Gold: I will put a little disclaimer out there that I’m a mountain biker, so I’m a dirtbag and I don’t road ride, but I do really enjoy the competitive spirit of road racing. My wife is an avid road cyclist, and we’re lucky enough to have gotten bracelets to hike up Flagstaff Mountain to watch the finish. It’s one of our favorite hikes, up the ridge there.
There have been a lot of spectacular venues along the route this year. What do you think is going to be special about that finish on Flagstaff Mountain?
Flagstaff is this iconic road in Boulder that has stunning views of all of downtown and stunning views of the Flatirons. To me that combination embodies Boulder as this rough and rugged pioneer town that’s full of these entrepreneurial and athletic-minded folks. And I think the ride itself, up Flagstaff Road, is going to be a grueling trek at the end of a full day of riding. I mean you just can’t ask for a better place to end a race. I’m also really psyched to see how fast these pros can ride up it because I ride up it all the time and I know exactly how grueling it can be.
I’m proud to have the USA Pro Challenge finish a stage in Boulder, especially on Flagstaff Mountain. I think it really reflects the significance that this city has on the Colorado economy and has for the cycling community, and I think it’s going to put a lot of attention on Boulder as a destination place for cycling. It also, it goes without saying, is a great economic driver for our community, just to bring people here, and it’s an aspirational, prestigious honor which helps put Boulder on the map, which is great for everyone here. People will see this stage of the race and think: “I’ve got to go ride there.”
Are you and your wife rooting for anybody in particular?
There’s one local guy in the race, Tejay van Garderen, who we’re excited to watch, but we really just like to see the competitive nature and spirit of all of these athletes. It’s really inspiring.
For folks who are new to Boulder, do you have any favorite local businesses you’d recommend checking out while they’re in town?
My favorite bike shop is University Bicycles, which is right at the base of Flagstaff, at 9th and Pearl. My favorite coffee shop is Ozo, at 10th and Pearl. And Spruce Confections – also on Pearl, right next to University Bicycles – has the best pastries in town: it’s kind of like a rider’s mecca, where all the locals go to grab a scone or a quiche before they go on their long, massive rides. For post-ride my favorite place to go for a beer and some nachos and put some calories back on is Mountain Sun. And then to pick up some Justin’s Nut Butter the best places are Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage, Alfafa’s, and Lucky’s.
How did the Justin’s Nut Butter brand get started?
Being a vegetarian and really wanting to be active requires a lot of protein, so I was eating a lot of peanut butter because it’s a cheap source of protein. When I was buying natural and organic peanut butter and some almond butter, I was really frustrated that there was no variety, no flavor options. And then at some point I realized how it easy it is just to grind your own, that you could just buy peanuts or almonds or whatever, put them in a food processor, and turn it on.
From there I was like, “I wonder it what it would taste like if I put chocolate chips in there, or maybe coconut flakes?” I started adding things like agave, cinnamon, coconut, maple syrup, really experimenting with making my own nut butters. I would put these concoctions into empty jars, and – if you’ve ever lived with roommates you know that we love invading each other’s food supplies – my roommates started stealing and eating them! Eventually I started putting my name on the jars: Justin’s. You know, as in, “Justin’s: Do not touch!” Well, the next thing I know, my friends start asking for Justin’s by name, and then I started selling it locally at farmer’s markets and at a few stores here. At the time I’d been working at REI and waiting tables and working all these odd jobs. One day when I was out on a mountain bike ride I had the epiphany of doing a protein squeeze pack. Carbohydrate squeeze packs had been catching on but it turned out nobody had ever put peanut butter into a squeeze pack before, as silly as that sounds, and it was a really big innovation. It was what put my company on the map.
What’s great about Boulder from your perspective as a business owner, and what makes it such a draw for entrepreneurs in the active lifestyle business? Is it something in the water?
Lifestyle. Lifestyle and community are the two things that are extremely important. It’s the lifestyle that draws us here: being active and healthy and environmentally sustainable, and being smart about business. There’s a really great culture of health and wellness with a long history in Boulder, and and a great sense of community here as well. I think people choose to move here because of the health and wellness aspect, and they stay here because it’s such a great community where you’re able to meet with local legends and heroes to ask questions. It’s a great place to start a company, to get inspired.
I try to give back and do some of the same things for the next generation of entrepreneurs, because I know I’ve drawn on a lot of local mentors here, including some of the people responsible for bringing the USA Pro Challenge through Colorado in the first place, people like Celestial Seasonings founder Mo Siegel and all of these other natural product rock stars who live here. It’s been a great community to learn from and also a great place to have access to capital: I have about 50 local angel investors in our company.
What’s your sense of the impact the USA Pro Challenge has on Boulder?
I think both for Colorado and for Boulder especially it’s about pride in what we have here. We have a lot of cyclists here who train hard and have either been pros or are aspiring to be pros, and to have Boulder and Colorado recognized as a destination for a pro cycling event of this magnitude just reinforces that this is a world-class place to come for training, for some beautiful majestic rides, and for a really competitive atmosphere and nature, no matter what kind of cyclist you may be. I think the race really reinforces that image, and of course there’s a great economic incentive in that it helps local businesses and brings people to Boulder to experience this amazing little secret that we have.
S|I is pleased to have writer Colin Bane authoring A Local’s Look at each stage of our On the Road with USA Pro Challenge tour. His work has been featured in ESPN.com, Westword, The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, Aviation Business Journal, Washington City Paper, and Bail Skateboard Culture. Colin is a skateboarder, snowboarder, action sports fan, and proud dad.