Justin Gold, founder and chief executive officer of Justin's Nut Butter, began his business with a series of home kitchen experiments.

CHICAGO — The story of Justin’s Nut Butter begins with frustration and a food processor. Dissatisfied with conventional peanut butter, Justin Gold began grinding nuts in his home kitchen more than 10 years ago to fuel his active lifestyle and vegetarian diet.

The experiments eventually led to the creation of Justin’s Nut Butter, a national brand with distribution in Whole Foods Market, Sprouts and Target. Justin’s portfolio has grown to include jars and squeeze packs of gluten- and dairy-free nut butters in such flavors as honey peanut, vanilla almond, chocolate hazelnut, and maple almond, as well as certified organic and gluten-free peanut butter cups in milk and dark chocolate varieties.

But for Mr. Gold, founder and chief executive officer of the Boulder, Colo.-based company, innovation isn’t limited to flavor extensions and new packaging formats.

“Being innovative is more than just product,” Mr. Gold told Food Business News. “It’s how you interact with your consumers. It’s how you communicate over social media. It’s the non-profits that you support in innovative ways. It’s how you give back to the community. It’s a lot more about new product innovation; it’s the whole ethos of the company.”

In an exclusive interview at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 20-22 in Chicago, Mr. Gold discussed new product development, industry trends and the dynamic growth of natural and organic snacks in the mainstream marketplace.

Food Business News: What’s new at Justin’s?

Justin Gold: What’s new for us is we’re promising all of our customers a 98% or higher fill rate on all of our products. We’ve been in such great demand that we’ve had a hard time keeping up. What’s big for us is just staying in supply.

What’s fascinating is, this is our fifth year here. When we first came to the snack show, we were kind of an anomaly, and we’ve seen a lot of brands that we’ve kind of grown up with that are now joining us here, and we’ve seen the industry evolve.

Why do you think that is?

It’s hard for me to say because I’m in the middle of it, but I think it has a lot to do with consumers who are reading the labels and want to understand all of the ingredients. But also, I think a lot of brands in the snack industry appeal to an older generation, and younger generations are really looking for brands that speak to them.

As far as innovation goes, you have some new packaging and sizes that you are showcasing. Are there new flavors on the horizon that you can talk about?

Again, our new thing is just being in stock. We have a lot of runway with line extension, flavor extension, new types of nut butter cups, new types of nut and seed butters. We have a lot of room for that. As far as innovation goes, we are looking into other snacking categories, but right now we really just want to over deliver on our customers’ expectations with what we have.

What snacking categories do you see Justin’s entering?

I don’t even know yet.

Justin's peanut butter cups were developed as a better-for-you alternative to the leading brand.

How did you make the move from nut butters to peanut butter cups?

Out of frustration. I shop at natural foods stores, and I couldn’t find a peanut butter cup that delivered on my peanut butter cup expectations.

And what were those expectations?

I wanted to replicate the leading brand experience, and no one was delivering on that promise in a natural format. I thought, if I’m going to make a better-for-you candy, it can’t be better-for-you, it has to be the best-for-you. So organic ingredients 100%, Rainforest Alliance chocolate, everything that we could do so that it’s a better-for-you indulgence.

And you also offer the dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

When you look for a dark chocolate cup, it all has animal products, so making one that didn’t have any animal products … All of the companies use milk as a base for the filling. We don’t use any dairy for the base of our peanut butter cup filling. Because the chocolate runs in such large production lines, I can’t claim that it’s vegan because there could be trace amounts of it, but there’s no added animal products. Which I think is a big deal.

How long did it take to develop the product with those requirements?

Well, what’s fascinating was when I looked for someone to help me make the peanut butter cup, nobody had the equipment because why would you ever go up against a giant? No one had any interest in making it. I had to talk a small company’s grandfather out of retirement to teach them how to use this piece of equipment to make a peanut butter cup. They’re still making it for us today. It took about a year and a half.

Was there a lot of flavor experimentation to get that leading brand replication just right?

I knew I couldn’t deliver the same experience, but I wanted to get as close as I could. I wanted two cups on a tray, but I wanted it to have its own flavor, its own taste. I definitely wanted it to stand out. I wanted the chocolate to snap when you bit into it. Using ultra-premium ingredients has been really important.

Justin's Nut Butter products span a variety of flavors and packaging formats.

As far as flavor extensions for the nut butters, you had tried making cinnamon peanut butter and decided to scrap it. What happened there?

So, I’m looking for everyday snacking occasions, and cinnamon was just a very limited snacking occasion. I wanted to create things that you would keep in your pantry to use every day, and cinnamon just didn’t have as much usage.

Were there other failed experiments or flavor ideas that just didn’t take off?

Oh, yeah. I had pumpkin pie peanut butter. I had a peanut butter for dogs. The first peanut butter for dogs. I thought it was going to be a smashing success. It just didn’t have the everyday snackability.

What is your most popular flavor of nut butter?