Lee Zalben grew up in Philadelphia with a love for peanut butter, so much so that he would always win competitions among his college friends for the “wackiest but best-tasting peanut butter sandwich.” It was from these late night study break contests that he first had the idea for a peanut butter sandwich shop.
After graduating from college, Zalben moved to New York City, earning his master’s and landing a job in publishing. It wasn’t long, however, before he realized that what he was doing wasn’t the right career path for him.
While walking past an abandoned storefront in Greenwich Village one day, Zalben thought he might have found the perfect place for the peanut butter shop he had in mind. Zalben says of that moment: “From the moment I stepped in, I could see it. This is where the counter will be, this is where the tables and chairs will be. The next day I quit my job.”
Zalben took on some freelance work while he wrote a business plan and researched everything he could about peanut butter and running a restaurant. Peanut Butter & Co. launched six months later, and within weeks of opening, the store had lines out the door and around the corner.
In a recent interview, Zalben shares more of his story and some of his rules for building a successful business:
- About quitting his job before he had even written his business plan: “Maybe I put the cart before the horse a little bit, but that kind of boundless enthusiasm is what entrepreneurship and small business really is all about sometimes.” There’s no shortage of entrepreneurs who have build successful companies around what they love to do, and while passion alone isn’t enough to guarantee success, it’s often what enables entrepreneurs to take the risk to start their business.
- “You don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it.” Zalben compares the early days of Peanut Butter & Co. to the “wild west.” Zalben advises business owners to plan not only for the problems that they can anticipate, but also the problems that they can’t even imagine might come up. “Even if logic dictates that something should only take four weeks,” he advises, “plan for it taking eight weeks. It’s building in enough flexibility to your plans to be able to move quickly and to be nimble.”
- Think strategically about expansion. After the success of his first store, Zalben considered expanding to more locations, but decided instead to work on bringing his products to high-end grocers and food stores. Focusing on a niche market for his organic, all-natural products paid off: nearly 90% of the company’s revenue today comes from its wholesale business.
After launching in 1998, Peanut Butter & Co. today boasts $10 million dollars in revenue, a staff of 25 employees, and 10 varieties of all-natural peanut butter. Zalben’s products are sold in over 10,000 retailers nationwide, as well as in Canada, the U.K., Japan, and Hong Kong.
Images courtesy of Peanut Butter & Co.