KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 19 — What happens when a challenge becomes a passion, and the passion then turns into an opportunity to start anew? Alzari Mahshar found out when a chance boast by his colleagues led him to give up a comfortable corporate job in Singapore to start a full-time business making his own peanut butter.
The 43-year-old former corporate communications professional, who goes by the nickname Joey, explains, “My Filipino colleagues at my office would bring back bottles of peanut butter from the Philippines every fortnight. It’s an important cottage industry over there. They said it was the best peanut butter in the world.”
This claim then became a challenge for Joey to create his own version. “There were so many formulas out there. I came up with my own recipe by doing lots of reading and research, but mainly it was through trial and error. There were a lot of burnt nuts,” he laughs.
Joey shared them with officemates and his homemade peanut butter was a hit at the pantry during teatime. When he met up with Twitter pals for their weekly makan gatherings, he shared bottles with them too.
“I used those Heinz bottles that were the perfect size for spooning the peanut butter out and eating it directly. My friends told me I should start selling my peanut butter. My initial reaction was scepticism. After all, they are my friends and ardent peanut butter lovers. I didn’t think the casual consumer would be interested in homemade peanut butter.”
However, after his friends started spreading the word via social media and the response was overwhelmingly positive, Joey changed his mind. He shares,
“I realised that I could really have a go at this. It was a tough decision to do this full time but I have great support from my friends and family.”
The timing was fortuitous as Joey was starting to miss Malaysia. “I had been working at a Singaporean telco for the past 13 years. Heading back to KL every weekend was numbing but I got used to it. Returning to KL for good would mean being able to spend more time with my two school-going sons who are growing up fast.”
Joey’s sons are, in fact, the biggest fans of his home-made peanut butter. He observes that home-made is better than commercial as his version contains no preservatives and is made in small batches to order.
“I listen carefully to all feedback whether it’s too sweet or salty. As a result I have come up with two standard types of peanut butter, a creamy version called Awesome Smooth and a crunchy one called Crazy Chunky. I call it Crazy Chunky because you can even find half or whole roasted peanuts inside! I don’t believe in stingeing.”
Some customers have asked for less sugar or sugarless versions, which Joey is happy to oblige. He says, “I can customise per order. Everyone has different tastes – peanut butter without sugar is an acquired taste but there’s a growing demand for this healthier option.”
Joey is able to satisfy his customers’ requests as he makes his peanut butter from scratch: from sourcing the raw nuts to hand-sorting them. He adds, “I go through more than 100kg of raw peanuts a month. I use Indian kernels, not nuts from China as I find those are flat in taste.”
Initially, the public learned about his peanut butter through word-of-mouth and social media. However, Joey isn’t resting on his laurels; in the next couple of months, bottles of Joey’s Homemade Peanut Butter will be appearing at Ben’s Independent Grocer and Jaya Grocer. He will also set up stalls at small neighbourhood events such as flea markets.
He says, “I’m also looking into the Singaporean market but need clearance from the local food authorities there. My plan is to have my peanut butter on more market shelves in six to 12 months’ time. I also hope to penetrate the hotel and airline segments. But I’ll take it one step at a time.”
Joey’s slow and steady approach extends to him delivering his products himself for the personal touch. “For a minimum of two bottles, I will deliver within the Klang Valley. It’s also a great opportunity to get to know my customers better and answer their questions.
“For example, I tell them that there will be a layer of oil on top of the bottle if they leave it for some time as no artificial emulsifiers are used. That’s how they know it’s all natural. Just stir the peanut butter with a spoon and it’s ready to be spread.”
Starting afresh can be terrifying for most people, but Joey is optimistic about it. “Some may say I’m losing out by setting up a business for the first time in my forties. How do I compete with younger and more energetic entrepreneurs? Honestly though, I feel I’m stronger in terms of maturity and have a better network of contacts.”
He wants to encourage others who are interested in starting their own small businesses. “Give it a try – you never know if you’d succeed unless you try.
There is a market, I believe, for local food products. Take Tamin kicap (soy sauce), for example. Before the late Mohd Tamin Mohd Wahi started producing sweet soy sauce all those decades ago, no one thought there would be a demand for it. Now his business has grown from a cottage industry to something much bigger.”
Ultimately Joey hopes that healthy, homemade food becomes more reasonably priced and available to more people. He says, “One of my customers found it difficult or expensive to buy sugarless peanut butter for his 9-year-old diabetic son. It meant a lot to me that I was able to help, in my own small way.”
Joey’s Homemade Peanut Butter
Price: RM13 per bottle (all types)
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 18, 2013.