Peanut butter guy spreads the love
Pic Picot is nuts, naturally, about the peanut butter he makes and now is selling across the globe. Naomi Arnold reports.
"I never would have thought," Pic Picot says, "that people could get so passionate about peanut butter."
Funny that, because it was his obsession with the stuff that's led to him making a living from it.
His Really Good Peanut Butter, made with just roasted peanuts and salt, has become a cult hit nationwide, and he's seen his company grow from a kitchen and garage operation 5 years ago to today, where his peanut butter company has a $3 million turnover and is available on shelves in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, and through mail order in the UK. Now he's about to break into the United States with a mail-order service, too.
Mr Picot admits that selling peanut butter to Americans is rather like selling coal to Newcastle, but he's confident that plenty of them will see the light and turn from their "horrible" spreads to his natural one.
"We have a hell of a lot of Americans in Nelson who go back home with their suitcases full of our peanut butter," he says. "They're peanut butter people. They've got millions of varieties, but people are still taking ours home. There are reports of customs guys saying ‘How come you're bringing peanut butter to America - this is the home of peanut butter?' "
One of their most famous customers is Billy Gibbons from the band ZZ Top.
"He's been buying it by the case. He doesn't care what the postage costs; we just send one over to Sunset Boulevard."
The All Blacks eat his peanut butter, and some bodybuilders will apparently go through a couple of kilos of it a week - being made up of protein, fat, and little else, it's the ideal food for those requiring plenty of energy.
The company's 380g Original jar is the fastest-selling jar of peanut butter in the country. It's a peanut butter revolution, he says - hence the red star on the lid.
Though he started grinding his own peanuts in 2007, his love for peanut butter has been a lifelong affair.
It developed from his intense hatred of "ordinary" peanut butter, which was marketed mostly to children and filled with sugar, emulsifiers and unspecified hydrogenated oils. He's been decrying the artificial stuff since a sailing trip 20 years ago, when he was cruising in the Bay of Islands and rowed across to an American yacht for breakfast.
The yacht's skipper, Brad, made him some toast, asked what he'd like on it, and brought out a jar of American peanut butter from a locker. It was labelled "Health Style", and Mr Picot was intrigued.
"I thought: ‘What can make peanut butter any healthier than ordinary peanut butter?' " Turns out it had reduced added sugar in it - not no-added-sugar, but reduced.
"I thought, ‘God, if that's the standard for peanut butter in America it's only a matter of time until it comes to New Zealand.' "
Sure enough, Mr Picot was soon riled to find sugar in his favourite brand of peanut butter. "I thought it was awful, and I really tried to avoid it."
He switched brands, but it wasn't long before they were all at it.
He'd check labels, but with his eyesight failing due to macular degeneration, he couldn't read them. One day he bought a jar of "Homestyle" peanut butter, thinking that would be up to scratch. "No gaily coloured tops with happy cartoon peanuts prancing around them," he says. "But it was full of sugar."
So he got cross. Really cross. Cross enough to ring Pam's 0800 number and complain. "Cos you know - it's a bit of an investment, a big jar of peanut butter. You're looking forward to using masses of it and it had all this sugar in it. The lady said, ‘That's the way people like it, sir. Don't be silly.' And I thought, ‘Bugger you.' "
He is, he says, a low-tech kind of guy. His aunt and mother used to roast and crush their own peanuts in a blender, so not long after that phone call he went to Bin Inn and talked about his problem with the owner. There might be a spare grinder in the warehouse, the owner said, and sold it to him for about $200.
"It was filthy; full of caked-on stuff."
He cleaned it up and squished his first batch of peanuts. When he gave the results to his 12-year-old son, who pronounced it "yum", he thought he had a winner.
He started a stall at Nelson's Saturday Market, where Nelson Fresh Choice's Mark A'Court spotted him and really liked the peanut butter.
"We thought: ‘We have to sell that,' " the grocer recalls.
He ordered four cartons, each containing two dozen 380g jars, and became Pic's first supermarket supplier in the country.
"I nearly died," Mr Picot says. "I thought ‘How am I going to do this?' "
He was still hand-grinding at that stage, and the supermarket bought up the first four boxes he ever produced. He went home and ground it all up that weekend. At the time, he was buying 24 jars at a time from an outfit in Wellington, printing out the labels on his home printer, cutting them up and sticking them on the jars with double-sided tape.
"It's massive now," Mr A'Court says. "It's one of the top-selling products in the whole spread category throughout New Zealand. For us it's No 1 and it has been for a while."
Mr A'Court attributes its success to its taste and texture, the fact that it's just peanuts and salt, and the fact that it's local, which he says is "a big push" for his Collingwood St store.
"It ticks all the boxes."
Mr Picot managed to fill the order, but still thought he'd prefer to keep things small, dry-roasting batches of nuts in a stainless steel concrete mixer with a burner under it in his Nelson garage. Thanks to his father, one of the founders of supermarket giant Progressive Enterprises, he had enough money to retire on and didn't want to bother with "forklifts and invoicing stuff" with his peanut butter business.
"Then we kept borrowing the neighbour's forklift to unload trucks, and then we started putting stuff on pallets," he says. "They were getting toey about lending it to us all the time so I thought, ‘Well, we'd better get a forklift.' That was it; I thought, ‘We'll just go for it', and it's really worked."
Pic started trotting around the country, getting the peanut butter into a few delis and specialty stores. He moved out of his kitchen into "a dark and gloomy corner" of a disused freezing works laundry at Wakatu Industrial Estate, and then moved again into his current 500sqm premises in June 2010. That allowed him to increase production fivefold and sell peanut butter to export markets and New Zealand supermarket chains, and create a viewing area where the public can see the peanut butter being made.
Since then he's gone from strength to strength. In 2010, his peanut butter won Cuisine magazine's Artisan Food of the Year Award, and last year he won the Wakatu Innovation Award at the Westpac Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, a handsome wooden sculpture on proud display at his factory entrance.
The company now employs 15 staff at its factory. Soon, they'll open a new warehouse nearby, in which they'll store empty jars and ready stock.
For the 5000 jars it pours out a day, the factory, behind the Pomeroy's coffee roastery, is a simple set-up.
Inside, there's a storeroom for the huge white plastic sacks of raw material - high-oleiac, shelled, blanched, split peanuts from Queensland, about 8 tonnes a week. Workers pour each sack into the bowels of a $100,000 Chinese-made continuous roaster, an enormous squat machine with a wide conveyor belt that roasts a layer of peanuts at 160 degrees for 45 minutes. It's capable of roasting half a tonne in an hour.
From there, the peanuts fall off into a gutter, which cools them to room temperature and corrals them up through a chute up to a silo which then funnels down to a grinder. That squishes them, adding a steady stream of salt into the mix. The nut paste is then piped overhead to a filling station nearby, at which a worker stands squirting a precise amount of fresh peanut butter into jars.
The naked jars are then sent along another chute, where they receive a lid, a vacuum seal, and a label, before finally being checked and boxed up, ready to send out.
Soon, the jars will be sent to the States for the first time outside a peanut-butter lover's luggage. With daughter Bridie Picot working as an advertising account manager in New York, Mr Picot plans to set up an American company with his daughter as director. He'll send over a pallet of stock and make it available by mail order by Christmas, with a fulfilment house packing the goods and sending them off to US customers.
He also plans to develop a scheme where for NZ$10, the company will send a jar of peanut butter anywhere in the world.
"We're going for world domination," he says. "Things have fallen into place beautifully."
Remarkably, he's managed all this while dealing with macular degeneration, which has left his sight so bad he can no longer drive, and forced him to quit his former business as a sailing instructor. "I went a bit blind," he explains.
In fact, the reason he started selling his peanut butter at the Nelson Saturday Market was to make up for the $200-a-week income he lost when a laundromat he operated closed.
Common in old age, he developed the condition younger than most, in his mid-20s. It's a family trait; his mother stopped driving when she was 50, and his father has since developed it as well. Can't read printed text but can read a limited amount of digital text.
He's now 60, and though reading has become more difficult he says he's had plenty of time to adjust - and in fact the advantages have almost outweighed the disadvantages. For one thing, it's forced him to step back, allowed others to take the business reins, and developed his flair for marketing.
"Sometimes I get frustrated, but I've had lots of businesses in the past - a restaurant, boat building, giftware - and I've always done everything myself," he says. "I've never really delegated properly."
He says that's played a big part in his peanut butter's success - he has had to hire good people to do the things he can't see well enough to do.
"I'd always fixed the machinery and set up new software systems and micromanaged everything. Because I couldn't do that anymore I had to get people in to do stuff, and we've got a really good bunch of people."
Now he spends most of his time travelling, promoting the brand as its best ambassador.
He's just returned from the Sydney Food Show, had the Melbourne Food Show earlier in the year, and has one in Brisbane coming up, as well as three or four shows in NZ this year.
"I love that. I have the excuse to bowl up to anyone and give them peanut butter on a stick. It's wonderful fun.
"Seventy per cent of the people at the food shows already eat it, so we wave it at them and they say, ‘Guess what, I had some for breakfast this morning.' "
The market and food show-goers all love it, he says. Only one guy has threatened to stick a jar down his throat. "He was startled, I think."
He attributes part of his success to the "wonderful" relationship he's developed with his Australian peanut suppliers. After the Queensland floods of 2011, the Pic's team had to hustle to find an alternative supply. They picked up peanuts from Argentina, which they used for the smooth version until a couple of months ago, and still keep as a backup in case the Australian supply is wiped out again. "But the guys in Queensland have more or less guaranteed that we'll get a continued supply; they've given us real priority. They like what we're doing."
He's also free to branch out into other interests. He completed a diploma in creative writing from NMIT, and now the inside of his peanut butter labels contain either his poems - under the name Bill Smith - or those of none other than course tutor and renowned New Zealand poet Cliff Fell, who writes under the pseudonym "Bill Smith, the poet who works for peanuts".
Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter is now found in peanut butter chocolates sold through Pomeroy's Tea and Coffee Company in Montgomery Square car park, and peanut-butter gelato, made by Carello and sold through Hell Pizza and in national supermarket chains (though not in Nelson).
Last year, he embarked on the Big Toaster Tour of New Zealand, in partnership with Vogel's bread and Dualit toasters. The Big Toaster, a gleaming silver Airstream food caravan with two enormous slices of fibreglass toast protruding from its roof, was towed by a classic 1972 HQ Holden ute he bought on Trade Me from an old farmer in the North Island.
With an on-board generator, it can produce hot toast and peanut butter within minutes of setting up. He offered free taste tests and snacks for a gold coin donation, which went toward the Foundation for the Blind.
With a driver, Mr Picot travelled around New Zealand, convincing cafes to add toast and peanut butter to their menus "because you can't have eggs benedict every morning".
He's also held the Great Peanut Butter Amnesty, where visitors to the Wellington Food Show last year could bring in any half-used jar of ordinary peanut butter and exchange it for a 200g jar of Pic's.
To make the deal complete, Pic donated the surrendered jars to Zealandia, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary - it was clearly fit for rodent pest-trapping only.
With a father in the grocery business, he used to think groceries were the most boring thing imaginable - but now thinks he could quite happily do this for the rest of his life.
"We've had people come along and offer to buy us out, but they're usually people who've had some amazing business and retired and got into fishing and the bach . . . six months later they don't know what to do with themselves.
"It's fulfilling all my dreams, really."
Just one question left, then. Crunchy or smooth? "Oh, crunchy, any time," he says. "Smooth's rubbish."
PEANUT BUTTER ICECREAM
3 frozen bananas (peeled)
3 Tbsp of cocoa
2 Tbsp of Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter
1.5 cups of milk
Chop the bananas up into 2cm thick slices and put everything into the bowl attachment of a food processor (doesn't work particularly well in the jug attachment) and blend until smooth.
Add more cocoa and/or peanut butter if you like a stronger flavour. You can also add a bit more milk if you think it's too thick.
The icecream can be frozen but sets quite hard so will need to be brought out 10-15 minutes before serving to soften up.
The mixture works really well in an ice-block mould.
LORNA'S PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
1 cup of Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter
1 cup caster sugar
1 egg (beaten)
1½ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp milk
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla essence
Chocolate chips (or chunks of dark chocolate)
Preheat oven to 180C (or fan bake 160C).
Cream peanut butter, butter and sugar until smooth. Add beaten egg and mix well.
Sift flour and baking powder into the mixture.
Mix together milk, baking soda and vanilla essence then add to the mixture.
Add chocolate chips.
Mix well (easiest with hands) and roll into little balls. Place on a greased baking sheet. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.
- © Fairfax NZ News