In 2013, Reid Edgar had become a fan of powdered peanut butter, but there were a few things about the emerging category that didn’t impress the Atlanta native.
For one, the flavors lacked ingenuity. But the bigger problem was why: Little competition meant that the top producer had no reason to innovate.
Powdered peanut butter is basically peanut butter with the oil removed — it’s high in protein and low in fat, making it a favorite of health-food enthusiasts.
But Mr. Edgar believed it could be much more and that broadening its appeal might not only infuse his snack time with more creativity, but it could also create a business opportunity.
“That became my mission: I said, ‘I’m going to figure out how to make this and I’m going to make it better,” he said.
Trial and error began in the kitchen, where he eventually hit on a formula and started branching out to other flavors. What would become the Tru-Nut company had started to germinate.
“The first day, me, my mom and my dad were hand filling every jar,” he said.
The company launched in August and already had its first export order in December, a shipment to Kuwait, the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf nation with one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet.
Fast forward to today, and Tru-Nut’s powdered peanut butter in original, chocolate and coconut flavors is sold in 4,000 stores in the U.S. and in nine countries, including most Publix groceries around the South. The company also offers peanut flour for bakers and peanut protein powder (including a keto-collagen variety), along with powdered almond butter and an original organic powdered peanut butter in original flavor.
It might seem that the U.S. market would be plenty large enough to keep a fledgling business occupied, especially given the learning curve in some overseas markets.
“It’s not easy. The biggest obstacle is explaining to the customer how to use it. Especially in non-Western countries that have a more basic diet and where there’s not really a lot of exploration, it’s harder,” Mr. Edgar said.
Even so, selling via distributors in a greenfield market, or directly to foreign consumers online, can be less challenging than slogging it out in the brutal battle for shelf space at U.S. grocery chains. Exports, even with all their complexity, can help avoid all the chargebacks, price reductions and inventory requirements that can kill a small food company.
“If I only sold to American grocery stores I would probably be out of business right now.”
“If I only sold to American grocery stores I would probably be out of business right now,” Mr. Edgar told Global Atlanta.
Building healthy relationships with distributors has been the key that has unlocked global markets. They’re often taking a risk with a new product, which can make the initial pitch tough, Mr. Edgar said.
“It takes a special distributor to go out on a limb and take a product on, especially like powdered peanut butter, that maybe is not available in their country right now,” he said.
But they’re also the ones with the sales channels and the incentive to introduce something new, especially from the U.S., to the wholesalers and stores they serve.
Mr. Edgar has been able to build solid relationships the world over, visiting multiple trade shows from Paris to Beijing with support and market research from various organizations set up to assist exporters.
These include the Southern United States Trade Association, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which gave him a GLOBE Award for expanding exports to a new market, and Orbatl’s Atlanta Metro Export Challenge, where a win netted Tru-Nut a $5,000 reimbursable grant for export-related expenses.
Throughout all this exploration, Mr. Edgar has found that health nuts apparently speak an international language when it comes to the peanut’s powerful protein properties. Tru-Nut products have won over consumers in places like Brazil, where the fitness community has quickly adopted them. Tru-Nut has also found its way into the Dominican Republic, Denmark, Singapore, the Philippines and other Gulf countries like the UAE.
China is another potential market, but the trade war ignited by President Donald Trump has slowed progress. Many distributors are taking a wait-and-see approach given the uncertainty surrounding the trading relationship.
In the European Union, meanwhile, retaliatory tariffs slapped on U.S. food products in response to Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs have pushed levies on Mr. Edgar’s products up to 38 percent from 12 percent, stalling efforts to reach into certain new markets.
Luckily, Tru-Nut’s problem is not a dearth of opportunities, but choosing which one to pursue. About 95 percent of the world’s more than 7 billion people live outside the United States, and they all have to eat. Tru-Nut has taken the initiative to print its labels in a variety of languages (or even with altered English wording in the U.K.), showing its willingness to go the extra mile to win export business.
“In the lifetime of my business I will never run out of new countries to export to. There will always be more markets out there; it’s a great way to grow your business, grow your volumes,” he said.
That might seem like a hassle, but Mr. Edgar argues that specialty food producers are missing a big opportunity if they sit out the pursuit of global market share.
“Once you get past the initial point of sale, it’s a lot less headache than selling domestically,” he said. “It’s not really that scary, to be perfectly honest. Business is business, whether it’s here, the Middle East or wherever.”
The Georgia Department of Economic Development, which sponsors Global Atlanta’s trade coverage, conducted the below Q&A with Mr. Edgar for its monthly export spotlight series. The conversation is reprinted with permission. Learn more about the trade resources of the department and upcoming trade missions at www.georgia.org/international/trade.
Tru-Nut Company specializes in healthy peanut products including powdered peanut butter, peanut flour and peanut protein powder. The company sells its products in more than 4,000 stores across the Unites States and currently exports to nine countries.
What motivated your company to start selling internationally?
Tru-Nut was founded in August of 2013 and by December we had already shipped our product overseas to fill an order request from a Kuwaiti company.
Shortly after getting that first order from Kuwait, we began pursuing international business. In 2014, we started attending international trade shows with the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) and the Southern United States Trade Association (SUSTA) to meet foreign buyers and explore foreign markets. As a direct result from attending these trade shows, our international exports increased significantly starting in 2015.
What is the biggest lesson your company has learned about exporting?
One of the biggest lessons is not to be afraid, especially of learning and knowing the differences and new requirements that come with exporting. Especially for food items, it’s important to understand the climate and appetite for your product and consider that you may need to customize an item for certain markets. More importantly, be patient when exporting since international business doesn’t always flow a consistent pace, nor is business conducted the same in different cultures. How have GDEcD’s International Trade Team and its partners helped your company achieve success internationally? Since Tru-Nut is a relatively small company, the services and resources that GDEcD’s trade team offers have made selling our products internationally easier and more accessible. Through GDEcD’s trade team, Tru-Nut had the opportunity to attend trade shows and access the expertise of Georgia’s international representatives who are on the ground in other countries and dedicated to helping us build connections to make international sales.
One of the first trade shows we attended, Fancy Food in New York City, is where we connected with our first big international customer who now sells our products throughout Canada. Georgia’s trade representative in Canada was incredibly helpful in getting us the information we needed to begin exporting to that market.
When it comes to the helping companies export, Georgia’s trade team offers so much more than we originally expected. Georgia really is one of the best states to do business and a huge part of that is thanks to of all the resources available through state agencies like GDEcD.
What advice do you have for companies that are just starting to export?
Find out where the people are that want your product and do your research to find out if there is a viable market for your product. It’s important to be proactive and visit a potential market or attend a tradeshow to determine first-hand if the demand is there.
What has been your biggest export achievement?
Our biggest achievement is that we’ve been able to customize our product for various markets around the world, mainly in terms of packaging and labeling; we have product packaging in so many different languages now. Since Tru-Nut is such a small company, being able to demonstrate to foreign buyers our ability to customize our labeling for different languages and cultural preferences really shows that our company is serious about international business.
To learn more about Tru-Nut Company visit www.tru-nutbutter.com.