Peanut Butter Americano’s Jeffrey Malkoon is something of a golden boy – a world citizen with a humanitarian heart, a loyal Phoenix native with an entrepreneurial brain, and a millennial. In a past life, he studied Arabic, worked a stint at the British Parliament in London, and lived briefly in Jordan, building a CV to work for the CIA or State Department, but this Coronado-born Phoenician can’t seem to let his hometown go.
“I was raised with a real love of Arizona. I love to travel, but I always come back,” he says. That loyalty manifests in the work Malkoon’s nonprofit does with local food charities (more than $10,000 given to local and international NGOs since founding), and recently, his participation on the committee to get Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognized in Arizona. How does an impressive guy like Malkoon end up in the peanut butter business, of all things?
Malkoon says it was equal parts change of heart (as indicated by his decision to get a master’s degree in nonprofit management) and sheer burnout from studying for six years straight at Arizona State University. Malkoon and a friend planned a six-month backpacking trip through South America, and even sold their cars to amass a “shoestring” budget. The two camped and couch-surfed through seven countries, eventually ending up in suburban Montevideo, Uruguay, where they stayed to build houses with a nonprofit called Techo Por Mi Paiz (“They’re sort of the Habitat for Humanity in South America – that’s what I call them,” says Malkoon).
As the trip came to a close, “I thought, ‘What can I do to keep working with this organization once we get back to the states?’ Because it was a life-changing experience for me,” Malkoon says. “I thought, ‘I’ll start a company ... a social venture, and we can give a part of our proceeds back to work they’re doing.’” Then the question became: what kind of company?
While in Uruguay, Malkoon noticed that though the peanut is a huge agricultural export product, the presence of peanut butter was strangely absent, Uruguayan children opting for dulce de leche sandwiches instead. Big-brand American peanut butter just doesn’t appeal to the local palate, Malkoon explains.
That’s why PB Americano’s nut butters are so decadent. Flavors like Cinnamon Honey, Dark Chocolate, and the super-rich Choco Blanco are reminiscent of dulce de leche, but contain a fraction of the sugar. (Cinnamon Honey is even sweetened with local-Arizona honey.)
Malkoon is quick to point out that he was never a chef, never went to culinary school, and was never even a peanut butter super-fan. The idea for PB Americano was “practical as well as emotional,” says Malkoon, driven by a need to keep working with the organization that stole his heart, but restricted by a zeroed-out bank account after his backpacking adventure. Peanut butter was something he could make in his mom’s kitchen at a low cost and sell at farmers markets.
Malkoon spent the better part of 2012 tinkering with recipes, using his family and friends as a focus group. “They ate a lot of terrible peanut butter,” Malkoon laughs, including his flopped attempts at alcohol-infused nut butters. In the beginning of 2013, he sold his first jar at Phoenix Public Market. Within months, PB Americano outgrew Mom’s kitchen and moved to its current HQ in downtown Phoenix.
Today, Jeff Malkoon and his sister Denise work the company full-time, as well as about 12 part-time staffers and high-school interns who man the various farmers markets. PB Americano is starting to scale into grocery and retail locations, most notably Sprouts, Whole Foods, and most recently Fry’s in Arizona, plus a handful in New Mexico. Malkoon is getting ready to take out his first loan to move the company into its own processing plant. PB Americano products are also moving into the Arizona foodservice scene through collaboration with Queen Creek Olive Mill’s distribution company, QCOM Distributing.
The business still gives back to Techo Por Mi Paiz as originally intended, as well as other organizations, like St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, and has already met its giving goal for 2016. Malkoon has also started his own nonprofit, called Fund for the Americas, to facilitate the giving back portion of his business. Given PB Americano’s intrinsic social mission to eradicate poverty, it is currently going through the vetting process for B-Corp certification.
It’s no wonder that this cute-as-a-button peanut butter company caught the attention of its digital payment-processing program, PayPal. The Fortune 500 company has facilitated PR opportunities for PB Americano and has used Malkoon in their own storytelling marketing. Early last year, PayPal invited PB Americano to participate in a national competition with five other selected small businesses. The six companies would compete for votes, then PayPal would take the top two to South By Southwest in Austin to participate in a Shark Tank spinoff with the show’s own Daymond John for a chance to win $30,000. After weeks of “mad texting everyone in my contacts,” to solicit votes, Malkoon says, PB Americano barely scraped into the top two spot, and Malkoon and his parents flew to Austin for an all-access week at SXSW, courtesy of PayPal.
The Shark Tank spinoff presentation was streamed live on PayPal’s YouTube channel. Malkoon’s competition was a company called Ear Hooks that makes silicone attachments for ear-bud headphones. In the interest of having a presenting partner, Malkoon brought his “louder-than-life” mother on stage, who may or may not have trended on Twitter briefly (#JeffsMom). “She was sampling out peanut butter ... [and] giving Daymond John hugs in the middle of the presentation,” says Malkoon. “She kind of stole the show a little bit.” The other company’s patent and margins proved to be a more tempting proposition and PB Americano lost, but Malkoon recalls Daymond John telling the victors, “You guys realize you almost lost this just because of Jeff’s mom, because of the hugs.”
“I didn’t feel like we lost,” Malkoon says freely. “It was killer publicity. We had a second holiday season of online orders from around the country.”
What’s next for our resident Golden Boy? Malkoon hopes that the next five years will include more giving back and more involvement from his nonprofit, Fund for the Americas. The intention is for the nonprofit to eventually become an independent entity, backed in part by the proceeds of PB Americano, but also by other members of the community. Of course, the giving growth must be accompanied by PB Americano’s growth as it moves into more groceries and retail locations across the country and eventually the globe.
You can likely expect PB Americano to become a genuine world citizen, but just like Jeff Malkoon, stay true to its Phoenix roots.