Entrepreneurs Erika Welsh and Keely Tillotson: Wild Squirrel Nut Butter
Best friends and young entrepreneurs Erika Welsh and Keeley Tillotson go together like peanut butter and jelly—and peanut butter and cinnamon, raisins, chocolate, coconut, honey, and pretzels. They are the founders of Wild Squirrel Nut Butter, a company they started when they were 18 and 19, respectively. Wild Squirrel takes nut butter to the next level, combining it with all those flavors and more. What started as a love of healthy living, good food, and friends, turned their lives upside down in the best way. The girls left their lives at the University of Oregon behind—Erika’s majors were environmental studies and Spanish and Keeley’s were journalism and art—to run their business full time. On this journey they have discovered that they enjoy taking risks and the adventures of being full-time entrepreneurs. Teen Voices editorial assistant Hillary Johns caught up with Erika to talk about Wild Squirrel and what’s next for their growing business.
Teen Voices (TV): What is the story, how did you start making your peanut butter?
Erika Welsh (EW): It was a very grassroots and organic beginning. We both liked to cook and loved to experiment in the kitchen with new recipes. We’re both athletes, so we ate a lot of peanut butter, and a lot of protein. Peanut butter was kind of our natural source of protein that we always went to. We ran out of it one Sunday afternoon when we were eating our favorite snack, ants on a log, which is celery, raisins and peanut butter. It was a typical rainy, Oregon afternoon and we didn’t want to bike to the grocery store. I had gotten a food processor for Christmas and we had peanuts in our pantry, so we looked up how to make your own. “Let’s just make our own, instead of going to the store!”
So we started making our own. We made our first batch, and we thought, “Oh, this is good,” but our natural inclination was to put something else in it. When we cook we throw that and this and see what happens! So we started putting cinnamon, raisins, and chocolate, and coconut, just all these different combinations. “Oh, that’ll taste great with peanut butter! We’ve never seen that at the grocery store.” So we started making these creations that sounded good to us. Pretty soon we had food processors full of all these different creations and we were sick to our stomachs. We needed to get this out of our house, so we went to the store and bought little jars and put our peanut butter in them. We borrowed Keeley’s brother’s car and started delivering this peanut butter to all of our friends. It was just totally like a fun thing. It was not like this is our business. It was another project. We love to cook; we love to share food with our friends. And we got this overwhelmingly positive feedback. Everyone was like, “Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted! You should sell this!” We just laughed, “Oh no, we’ll just make it for you.” And then in a week’s time we started being known as the Peanut Butter Girls around campus. Everyone was requesting it and stopping us saying, “How do I get some?” And of course we wanted everyone to try it, but we were poor college students, so we couldn’t keep making it for free. A friend suggested we set up a website as a way to track our orders and that’s what we did. We set up the website and it took off from there. We started selling it and tracking our orders through PayPal. It was a pretty quick transition.
TV: What’s the difference between your peanut butter and a general peanut butter you can buy at the grocery store?
EW: Well, first of all, we have different flavors. So we started selling that as what set us apart. We put in cinnamon and whole raisins and we have chocolate coconut and honey pretzel with pretzel pieces. Basically, things that have never been combined with nut butters, that’s what we’re doing. There are a lot of flavored peanut butters out there, but a lot of them use ingredients that we stay away from. A lot of added sugar, added oils, preservatives and stabilizers, that’s the garbage. We want to keep garbage out of our nut butters. Our goal at the end of the day is to create a nut butter that tastes good but is still healthy and you don’t feel like you just ate dessert. It’s all recognizable names on our labels and we’re very transparent with what we put in our nut butters. Food should be fun but it should still be healthy.
TV: So where did the name Wild Squirrel Nut Butter come from?
EW: I was nicknamed that when I was little. The connection was the very first day that we made our company. We were making these jars and we needed some sort of name for it. So my nickname and peanuts and squirrels, it was kind of a natural comparison. They are all over Oregon so everyone here is very familiar with squirrels.
TV: What is your favorite flavor of your peanut butter?
EW: Well now, what’s really exciting is that not only do we make peanut butter, we now make almond butter too. We started selling almond butter in March. We were excited to launch our almond butter for people who can’t tolerate peanut butter. Right now, my favorite is the vanilla espresso almond butter. For me, I love the way it tastes, but also I love that it’s very unique. People are always really shocked to hear that we’re putting ground coffee and espresso powder with almond butter. The inspiration came from vanilla and coffee, which you know, people love that flavor combination. So vanilla espresso almond butter is my favorite right now, but it changes.
TV: We get hungry just thinking about all of the flavors! Can you tell your readers more about them?
EW: We have three peanut butters: honey pretzel, chocolate coconut, and cinnamon raisin. Cinnamon raisin was the very first one that we made, so that’s the root of everything. There’s chocolate sunflower seed almond butter and vanilla espresso almond butter. Those all come in the 6 ounce jars. We’re always on the go, in the car or doing something active, and there are other companies that put their nut butters in packets. We really wanted to do that from day one. We love our jars but we want to be in the single serve packets. It’s a great way to eat nut butter but not have to deal with packing it in Tupperware and all the mess that goes with it. We started selling those this spring and we’re selling at University of Oregon and giving it to a couple other colleges. We’re really trying to push the packets and get others to try it. Four out of the five flavors come in the packets, all but the honey pretzel, because the pretzels clog up the tube in the machine that we use to make them. Honey pretzel is such a favorite right now—I’d say it’s probably our most popular peanut butter.
TV: What has been the most exciting or rewarding part of your business?
EW: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. It’s a hard one. Running your own business, everyday you wake up and you don’t know what’s going to happen. When I was in college, I rowed crew for University of Oregon, so I’d go to practice, I’d have three classes a day, then homework, then go to bed and do it all again the next day. Life was very predictable. With the business, we get to design our own schedules. We set our own goals and we are basically working all day, everyday, which is the downside. You’re always working, there’s always work to do. You don’t clock out, like a nice normal job. But with that comes so much room for creativity, and I get to work with my best friend. It’s fun and it’s exhausting, but it’s so rewarding because for everything that we’re doing, we see direct results in the real world. It’s not like when you finish a school project and you’re done. We accomplish a goal and that opens a door to a million other exciting opportunities for us.
TV: Who has been the most help to you on this journey with your business?
EW: I guess it sounds generic, but probably our family and our friends. We would not have even started this endeavor without their encouragement. For Keeley and me, like I said, it was very natural for us to make food and give it out to people. We liked to cook for people. We would have probably just kept doing that, and given it out for free. Someone, one of our friends, everyone, said how good it was and that we needed to sell it and that we should have a website and all these things that we would have never done on our own. People around us gave us the encouragement that really solidified what we had created. The response we got from our family and friends really pushed us to take it to the next level.
TV: What do you think has been the key to your success?
EW: There are a lot of keys, but the biggest is probably our youthfulness, our age, and being women entrepreneurs. We started at 18 and 19 and for a lot of people that sounds like it would have been a downside, but we looked at it like this: We admit that we’re young and still in college (though we’re not in college now), and we admit that we don’t know everything. We’re willing to say, “Yeah, we don’t know how to do that, can you please help us?” We love talking to other entrepreneurs and getting advice, having meetings and getting coffee with people and just hearing what they’ve done. Then taking their advice and transferring it to our own business and how we can apply it to what we do. I think that admitting that we’re not experts has helped us so much. It’s a win-win because we learn a lot, get a lot of free advice, and it’s been a joint effort. People feel like they are a part of Wild Squirrel. We are a very transparent company and we want other people to be a part of our growth.
TV: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
EW: Life is just very unpredictable. I was planning on graduating. I went to high school and college. I wanted to graduate with environmental studies and Spanish majors and I was going to try to find a job. It was scary for me to take that leap [of leaving school]. My mom is a teacher and my sister loves school. It was a huge leap for me to say I’m not going to be in school, I’m going to do something out of the ordinary or that’s not accepted in our culture. It’s like you go to high school, you go to college, you get a job. That’s how our society is set up. I think I’ve learned that taking risks is a great thing. I never was never a risk taker, so for me, “dropping out of school” was a huge risk. I think I want to go back and pursue some sort of other degree. But school will always be there and we both realized that this company needed our full attention and time and energy. It wouldn’t always be there unless we gave it all of those things. Taking risks and realizing what’s right in front of you, you should go with it. And I’ve never looked back!
TV: So what’s the next step for your company? Do you have specific goals, or ambitions, or new flavors?
EW: Oh, gosh, yes! All of those things! I guess our biggest overriding goal is that we want to be a nationally distributed product. We want to be in all states and we want people to be able to walk into a grocery store and buy a jar or packet of Wild Squirrel. That’s our biggest goal and we are on the right track for that right now. We’re in about 150 stores in Washington, Oregon, and California right now. And we’re getting a distributor in the midwest and east coast states, so we’re on track to accomplish that goal.
As flavors go, people always ask, “What is your latest flavor idea?”And as foodies ourselves, we always have new flavor combinations and different types of nut butters in mind. But we’ve learned that we have to pace ourselves and for now, we are going to stick with our five flavors. We want to make them the best they can be. We don’t want to keep changing flavors on people, because a lot of people have favorites. We want to keep those in our Wild Squirrel Family. But hazelnut is the nut of Oregon. So we’re hoping that we can do a hazelnut butter soon, and launch a new flavor in the holiday season. There’s no set, specific answer, but we’re always brainstorming and we’d love to expand to other nuts.
There are a million things we want to do, but we’re trying to build a community outreach plan. Keeley and I have this company where we want to make money, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to just be a nut butter company. We want to make an impact on the bigger level and we see this company as a way to allow us to do that. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, if you want to make a difference you have to be on a bigger scale and have funds available. So we’re looking at our business and hopefully we can develop a plan so that we can give back to the community. We’re both really focused on food and education, nutrition, and health in general, and we believe all that starts at a young age, in elementary school. That’s a great place for kids to really develop a strong awareness and understanding of what general health is, how to exercise, what it means to eat right, and where food comes from. Right now we’re talking with a bunch of schools in the Portland area and trying to figure out how we can give back to schools. We’re going to start on a small scale and then hopefully, someday, be a part of a bigger organization nationally. That’s another thing we’re working on. We want to be a company that is socially aware and a company that exists [to do] more than just make money.
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