Portage-based B.Nutty expands beyond soccer mom fundraising to global markets
When Joy Thompkins of Valparaiso decided to dream up a new way of raising money to support her son’s soccer team, she wanted to sell something other than the usual candy bars and popcorn.
After talking with Lisa Stanford, a teacher friend from Crown Point, they hatched an idea in early 2014 to make batches of gourmet peanut butter in various fun and delicious flavors to entice sales and make money. Using the brand name B.Nutty and with the help of word-of-mouth, demand grew for the unique peanut butter flavors. The success prompted Thompkins to fine tune the recipes and explore larger-scale production.
Further expansion required rental space using the facilities at Nana Clare’s Commercial Kitchen in Valparaiso. Soon Carol Podolak joined the venture to become a marketing partner for the company as both the sales and the number of peanut butter varieties increased.
“We are soccer moms who never intended to start a company,” Thompkins said. “This began as a way to raise money for youth soccer, and we are still supporting that same mission, but it’s a much larger scale now.”
By 2017, the company moved to a larger 2,500-square-foot commercial kitchen in Merrillville to allow more storage and create a larger-scale shipping department.
Using the brand slogan “Beyond Peanut Butter,” some of the available 15 flavors include Joyful Cranberries, Blissful Blueberry, S’more Dreams, Totally Toffee, Coco-Nutty and Pumpkin Spice.
Each flavor uses the same all-natural honey-roasted peanut base as the primary ingredient.
Urschel Laboratories in Valparaiso created a special peanut grinder to produce a smooth and textured blend to yield a peanut butter consistency per Thompkins and her team’s specification.
“The all-time best seller is still our IP Gourmet Peanut Butter, which is our abbreviation name for Irresistible Pretzel, which is loaded with pretzel pieces and white chocolate pieces,” Podolak said.
“The first time I sampled the IP, I was hooked and knew I wanted to help Joy spread the word about B.Nutty,” she said.
“At first, we started selling the peanut butter at local farmers markets, which works great because it allows our soccer players to be involved with the process, while learning about business and communicating with customers.”
The 12-ounce plastic jars of B.Nutty Gourmet Peanut Butter are sold for about $8 and are available at Walmart, Strack & Van Til, County Line Orchard and more than 50 small retail stores around the Midwest.
“When I heard about their product, I recognized this was an opportunity to help another NWI business in giving them an opportunity,” said Jeff Strack, president and CEO of Strack & Van Til stores. “I tell people that, while I don’t get involved in the decision-making process on what goes on our shelves, I can help arrange a meeting for them to convince our team why we should carry their product.”
He said that, after listening to B.Nutty’s story and how their product might fit into Strack’s merchandising plan, he decided to sell their product.
“It is not only a great opportunity to have a local peanut butter on our shelf at Strack & Van Til, but more importantly, it is a great product,” Strack said. “Carol and Joy did a great job selling their product, and the response from our store and customers has been very positive. It has been really exciting to watch them grow their company and the bright future … ahead of them.”
Last year, Thompkins and Podolak decided to bring their product to the national sales TV arena via an appearance on QVC.
“Neither of us wanted to appear on camera as the face of a peanut butter brand, so we let a QVC personality do our sales spot, and the sales numbers soared,” Thompkins said.
That meant the company needed more production space, which led them to their current 16,000-square-foot production center in Portage.
“The state of Indiana and especially the city of Portage were great for helping us grow into another new space, because both are so pro-business,” Thompkins said. “We decided to make our move to Portage for a new space; we couldn’t have picked any better area.”
The company’s new $1.9 million location provided more room to assemble gift baskets and space for administrative offices.
Almost 20 full-time employees now work at B.Nutty, and up to 30 seasonal employees will be hired between October through December for the holiday rush.
Beginning in October, the company production line was dedicated to producing two special “holiday” peanut butter varieties: gingerbread and cinnamon sugar cookie. The flavors will be sold exclusively for QVC.
In fall 2019, B.Nutty began shipping its first international retail orders to locations in Mexico, South America and Europe.
Thompkins hasn’t lost sight of the basics even as her company has grown. She still enjoys making peanut butter.
“Walking through the production line and kitchen area always smells so wonderful throughout the year,” Thompkins said.
“Even in our front lobby, it smells delicious in the area where our receptionist greets guests at the front counter. We always encourage customers (to) come right to our production facility, which we like to call the Nut House, to come to the front counter to make their purchase.”