In 2006, Boulder resident Justin Gold was squeezing the most out of a 10-by-10-foot booth at the natural products industry's biggest trade show.
The 28-year-old founder of Justin's Nut Butter showcased his gregarious nature as he drummed up business for his jars of nut butters. A little behind the curtain, however, Gold also was busy passing along some nut-butter squeeze packs prototypes to select retail buyers at the Natural Products Expo West.
Gold's company since has grown into a profitable, multimillion-dollar business that sells nut butters and chocolate nut butters nationwide. The firm recently honed its management team; landed notable investors; hired a brokerage to sell the brand nationally; and rebranded -- sans the "Nut Butter" but with a new look -- to broaden its appeal and branch out into other areas such as candy.
"I really feel lucky," said Gold, now 32 and CEO of Justin's. "I've never worked harder. I'm getting good at it, which really feels good."
Gold grew up in Ligonier, Pa., a small borough home to about 1,600 people. It was there that his grandfather ran one of the first natural foods stores in the state of Pennsylvania.
When he went to college in Harrisburg, Gold became a vegetarian and an academic intrigued by the origins of food and power. He organized visits to landfills, dairy farms and meatpacking facilities.
Intrigued by the environmental activism of the time -- when Erin Brockovich and "A Civil Action" were popular -- Gold yearned to be an environmental lawyer.
He interned at a firm, but soon grew disenchanted.
"I hated it," Gold said, lowering his voice to a whisper. "It was so boring."
In 2001, he moved to Boulder, a place he heard was an ideal home for a vegetarian who loved to mountain bike and ski.
It was during the "work hard, play hard" times of waiting tables and mountain biking, when an idea struck Gold, who ate a lot of peanut butter to get protein for his rides.
"I became frustrated with the lack of great-tasting peanut butter," he said. "It was salted or unsalted, crunchy or smooth."
Gold started making his own nut butters, jarring the mixtures and dressing the jars with little labels. Gold's roommates loved the jars and their contents and convinced him to sell the nut butters.
Gold's first customer was the Great Harvest Bread Co. in Boulder.
Gold's enthusiasm won the breadmaker over, said co-owner Scott Creevy, who later assisted the entrepreneur by helping fund and set up Gold's tent at the Boulder Creek Festival.
"It is fun to watch somebody do well and know that you've had a very, very minor part in helping him out," Creevy said.
During the next few years, Gold's company eventually grew into a manufacturing space east of Foothills Highway in Boulder; Whole Foods and King Soopers started carrying the nut butters; and friends and family helped fund the business.
The company's exponential sales rocketed further in 2007 after salmonella cases were linked to some iconic peanut butters such as Peter Pan. Wary customers turned to natural and organic spreads, Gold said.
In 2009, the privately held Justin's set out to sell $1.5 million in shares, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. It gained investors such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky's Alex Bogusky. Earlier this year, Justin's appointed Lance Gentry, formerly of Izze, as its president.
Justin's also inked an agreement with Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence, a leading natural foods brokerage.
"They have 270 employees nationwide and can go into stores and represent our line at natural and conventional grocery stores," he said. "We don't have the bandwidth to do that."
Concurrently, Justin's is rolling out a new look: a cartoon image of the respective spread's nut on a white background.
"The strategy was to try to make his market much more expansive, like we did for Izze ... where you can have high-end stores be selling it and normal supermarkets, too," said Thomas Dooley, founder of Boulder's TDA Advertising & Design, which headed up the re-branding.
With approaches such as the thin-film packets -- sold at places including Starbucks -- Justin's has "nailed it," with some of the industry's biggest trends, said Anna Soref, editor of industry trade publication Natural Foods Merchandiser.
"I think the delivery forms are innovative and appeal to today's lifestyle, which mandates convenience," she said.
That allowed the company to gain a stronger foothold in an industry that grew 4.8 percent in 2009 to $76 billion in sales, she said.
Through its manufacturing partner of Fresca Foods, Justin's churns out about 500,000 packets per month. The scale is nice, Gold said, but the environmentalist in him wanted more.
Last week, Gold beamed as he held a nondescript packet in his hand. After years of searching, he found a biodegradable film -- one that, unfortunately, costs too much.
To help make compostable materials more affordable through economies of scale, Gold is organizing a sustainable packaging summit later this year in Boulder.
Gold set an Earth Day 2011 target to have Justin's using the compostable packaging.
"To have an opportunity to use peanut butter as a platform to change the packaging industry, really gives me excitement ... it gives me a higher purpose to have a business," he said.