Peanut butter is hard on food processors. Keeley Tillotson and Erika Welsh, founders of Wild Squirrel Nut Butter, know this first hand.
The University student-duo started making homemade peanut butter with added flavors — like cinnamon and espresso — in their apartment one rainy Sunday in January last year. After sharing with friends, creating a company website and running with the idea, Tillotson and Welsh got their product out into the Eugene community by selling it at the spring ASUO Street Faire one year ago. Wednesday to Saturday saw the two operating the booth by day, racing to the grocery store in the evening, and staying up nights mixing, packing and labeling peanut butter to be ready for the next wave of eager customers.
“One food processor would die, and one would be smoking,” Tillotson recalled. “We’d put it in the fridge to kind of cool it off so that it would work again later in the day. We’d be making peanut butter late into the night.”
But the stress and hard work have paid off since then. Wild Squirrel Nut Butter has grown beyond two college sophomores tackling peanut butter by hand and mixer and into a nationally recognized company with a bright future.
“We could have said to our friends at any time, ‘You know what, we don’t really feel like making peanut butter anymore,’” Tillotson said. But expectations from the growing fan base were high, and the duo didn’t want to let anyone down.
During the summer, the two young women started selling their nut butter at farmers’ markets around Oregon, which helped develop Wild Squirrel into five flavors: chocolate-coconut, cinnamon-raisin and honey-pretzel peanut butter, chocolate sunflower seed and vanilla-espresso almond butter.
“It was a great chance for us to interact with customers and have a ton of people try our product,” Welsh said.
With continuing success under their belts, the duo set a goal to get their product into a grocery store. But with that goal came questions about commercial kitchens, licensing and obtaining professional labeling and nutrition facts. Plus, there was the whole issue of the food processors.
“We vowed that whenever we decided to get into stores that we would not be making the peanut butter because it was so time consuming,” Tillotson said. “And we wanted to use our time to do other stuff with the company.”
New Seasons, a grocery store chain based in the Portland area, offered to start selling Wild Squirrel Nut Butter. With a little help, Wild Squirrel found a manufacturer in northern California. Each time a new batch is made, Tillotson and Welsh work in the factory, taste-testing and making sure everything is the way they want it to be.
Thirty-five stores in Oregon and one in Vancouver, Wash., have sold Wild Squirrel Nut Butter since November, about 25,000 jars in total — a far cry from the number of jars they produced by hand last spring.
“The summer was really a turning point for us, where we went from selling it in farmers’ markets to creating a product that was store-ready,” Welsh said. “A lot of people were really willing to give us advice. We’re kind of in that unique situation where we’re young college women, and people are very excited about helping us with our entrepreneurial endeavors.”
The media, in particular, has been helpful. Coverage in newspapers, radio shows and food blogs has increased publicity. But lately, national press has also picked up the story.
The May 2012 issue of Glamour featured Tillotson, who applied for and won a Glamour Top 10 College Women scholarship. Both the April and May issues of O, The Oprah Magazine featured Wild Squirrel, first as a tasty snack and second as an age-defying company since Tillotson and Welsh founded it at 18 and 19 years old.
“We’re under the assumption that Oprah’s held a jar of Wild Squirrel, and that she has tried it,” Welsh said. “So that makes us pretty excited … we have Oprah’s seal of approval.”
The duo will also soon be on TV. “Shark Tank,” an ABC reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their companies to investors, will feature Wild Squirrel on Friday, May 11 at 8 p.m. to over six million viewers.
This week at the ASUO Street Faire, you might spot Tillotson and Welsh in their blue shirts in a booth, handing out samples and selling jars of nut butter. Now it’s made in a factory — not by hand — but it still tastes just as good.
“This time it’s going to be a much more relaxing experience because we have all the product made; we just have to show up with it,” Welsh said.
Though the company has grown, further expansion is never far from the duo’s minds. Tillotson and Welsh are currently in talks with a distributor, which would allow Wild Squirrel to sell in over 200 stores along the West Coast in the next six months.
“We look at each other every day, and we just cannot believe what has happened in this past year. It’s just unbelievable,” Tillotson said. “And we’re really looking forward to seeing what will happen in the next year. I think it’s going to be even crazier.”