Meet Lee Zalben, Founder & CEO, Peanut Butter & Co.

October is LGBT History Month, and IRI is proud to celebrate it by recognizing members of the LGBT community who are making history in CPG. IRI is committed to doing our part to help level the playing field in CPG and retail for diverse business owners through our Diversity Advantage Program. We are honored to share our recent interview with LGBT entrepreneur and DAP participant Lee Zalben, the founder and CEO of Peanut Butter & Co. He has transformed what began as a small storefront in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1998 into a fast-growing manufacturer of acclaimed peanut butters that are now sold in more than 15,000 retail outlets nationwide.

IRI: You started in 1998 with a shop that served nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. You made your own homemade peanut butter because you were unhappy with the ingredient quality of major brands at the time. What are the keys to maintaining that quality commitment now that your company has transformed into a manufacturer of a wide assortment of peanut butter products and other nut-based spreads?

Lee: For everyone at Peanut Butter & Co, quality starts with using the best ingredients — ones that taste good, feel good and do good. Responsible sourcing is really important to us. We only use peanuts and almonds grown in the USA, which we think are the best tasting and the highest quality in the world. Palm oil is an ingredient that is commonly used in all-natural peanut and tree nut butters, but it’s also an ingredient connected to several environmental and socio-economic concerns. We have a companywide policy to only use sustainable palm oil. We also take part in the RSPO’s PalmTrace program as an added level of action to support sustainably grown palm and small palm producers. We use other ingredients — like honey, cocoa and vanilla — that we are striving to source with more transparency and greater social benefit and are excited to bring that forward in the coming years.

IRI: Your products can now be found in more than 15,000 supermarkets and natural stores in North America. You’ve also expanded from peanut butters to peanut powders, almond butter and chocolate hazelnut spreads too. What’s next for your company?

Lee: At Peanut Butter & Co., we’re really excited by opportunities to move into snacking. Peanuts and peanut butter are integral ingredients in so many different classic and innovative snack foods. We think we have a unique culinary perspective to share.

IRI: Your products are certified by the Non-GMO Project and Vegan Action, many of your products are gluten-free and kosher, you support certified sustainable palm oil production and your company was recently designated a Certified Plastic Neutral Brand. What should people know about your company’s commitment to sustainability and about the sustainability of peanut butter in general?

Lee: First and foremost, people should know that peanuts are an incredibly sustainable crop. Peanuts have been called “nature’s zero waste plant” because everything from the roots to the hulls are utilized. Peanuts also require less water and have the smallest carbon footprint of any nut. While tree nuts such as almonds and cashews need consistent water, peanuts adjust their growing cycle based on available water. Peanut plants improve soil too. They are nitrogen fixing, which means they take nitrogen from the air and produce their own in the ground, which benefits other crops planted the following year.

Since the early days of Peanut Butter & Co, we have always supported sustainability initiatives through a number of small actions, including responsible sourcing of palm oil. In 2021, we decided to focus our efforts not just on palm but also on reduction of plastic in the environment.

We are now a certified Plastic Neutral Brand through our partnership with Plastic Credit Exchange. We document all the plastic we use (from jars to lids to the shrink wrap used in transporting large shipments) and report the total amount to Plastic Credit Exchange. Then, Plastic Credit Exchange removes the same amount of plastic from the environment. The collected plastic is recycled into new, useful products, and any plastic that cannot be recycled is used as an alternative to coal to fuel cement factories. In 2020, we offset more than 220 metric tons of plastic. We understand that this is just a start. More work needs to be done to meaningfully reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. Many brands working together can make a difference, and we hope our actions inspire others to join us.

IRI: You’ve written two cookbooks and Peanut Butter and Co. offers a ton of peanut-butter-based recipe ideas on its website and social channels. What are your favorite unconventional ways to use peanut butter in foods?

Lee: My favorite way to enjoy Peanut Butter & Co peanut butter is right out of the jar on a spoon. We surveyed our customers and that turned out to be their favorite way to enjoy our peanut butter too. That’s one of the reasons we chose to feature a spoonful of peanut butter on all our packaging.

Other favorites for me are to use peanut butter as a dip for pretzels, as a spread between banana slices and then frozen, or swirled into my morning oats.

IRI: COVID-19 really accelerated shopper preferences toward e-commerce. Has this shift affected your company strategy at Peanut Butter & Co.?

Before COVID-19, we had already built significant distribution for Peanut Butter & Co. products through traditional e-commerce retailers, so we were relatively well prepared for the channel shift. What has really changed are all the new same-day delivery platforms, which have some very exciting tools to increase brand awareness and drive sales.

IRI: Your company recently celebrated Price Month by announcing a yearlong initiative to donate One Million Spoonfuls (about 36,000 pounds) of peanut butter to food banks across the U.S. Nearly 27% of LGBT+ people experienced food insecurity in the last year. What should people know about this issue and your company’s work to address it?

Lee: We were shocked to learn about the increased food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community. Our initial reaction was to support LGBTQ+ community centers and pantries. But after learning more about the issue from one of the authors of UCLA Law’s Williams Institute study, we realized that traditional food banks are the primary service providers for the LGBTQ+ community. We realized we could do the most good by focusing our efforts on traditional food banks, and to prioritize support for those that strive to provide equal or improved food pantry access for the LGTBQ+ community. We hope our work in this area helps to make this issue more visible and inspires others to join us in these efforts.

IRI: Peanut Butter & Co. is a Certified LGBT Business Enterprise. How has this certification been beneficial for your business?

Lee: The LGBTE certification is fairly new for Peanut Butter & Co., and there are retailers, distributors and other partners with whom we’re just now sharing the information. What has been most exciting so far is the increased engagement with some of the partners with whom we were first to share the certification. We’re always fighting for a seat at the table, and at the same time also concerned that it might not be a table that’s welcoming to us. Impactful supplier diversity programs that recognize the NGLCC’s LGBTE certification and create meaningful programs for participants are not only making room at the table — they’re embracing difference. It is empowering for brands like us and creates a better marketplace for consumers.

IRI: Our Diversity Advantage Program makes IRI data, training and expertise available to smaller CPGs to help them forge stronger partnerships with large retailers and more easily scale their companies. How has the program been helpful to Peanut Butter & Co. as you grow your company?

Lee: Everyone at Peanut Butter & Co. is excited and grateful to be part of IRI’s Diversity Advantage Program. We had some experience working with limited IRI datasets in the past, but this program has been game changing for us. Not just because of the kinds of data that are being shared, but more importantly because of the expertise and insights shared by the analysts working with us, and also the training IRI has made available to our team. It’s helping us become a better company, learn how to be more data-driven and help us be a better retail partner.

IRI: You’ve been in business since 1998. How have you seen the landscape for LGBTQ+ business owners change over that time? What advice would you give to young LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs starting out today?

Lee: The landscape for all business owners that come from nondominant groups has certainly changed, but still needs to evolve and improve. When I started Peanut Butter & Co., I felt I had to be very careful about what kinds of personal information I shared with others. I rarely felt I could bring my whole self to meetings with customers, suppliers and partners, which is really hard for an entrepreneur who leans so heavily on their passion and vision to build their business. There are still places where it feels like difference is merely tolerated as opposed to being embraced and valued. I have friends who are very successful LGBTQ+ founders who are not out for those very reasons. I am in awe of some of the new crop of LGBTQ+ food founders like Sana Javery Kadri of Diaspora Co., who has made celebrating difference and fighting for social justice integral parts of her brand from day one. That is the future, and it is so inspiring!

For more information on Peanut Butter & Co. products, history, recipes and retailers, please visit the company website. You can learn more about IRI’s award-winning Diversity Advantage Program here.

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