Meet & Eat, Lee Zalben, The Godfather of Peanut Butter

"It’s amazing to me how much time and money someone else’s mistakes can cost not only my company, but my entire industry."

20090314-meeteat-pbco.jpgIt's not an easy time to be in the peanut butter biz right now, but Lee Zalben is hustling to preserve the reputation of jelly's pal.

In 1999, four years after he graduated from Vassar College, he embraced a dream that very few do—he opened a peanut buttery, which has become a nationally recognized jarred peanut butter brand. Crowned the Peanut Butter Godfather, he likes his milk full-fat and has been known to make a mean PB&P (pickles).

Location: New York, NY
Occupation: Founder and president, Peanut Butter & Co.

Was there a special moment when you knew you'd be a leader in the peanut butter field? When I opened the Peanut Butter & Co. sandwich shop in Greenwich Village in 1998, I was unprepared for the barrage of nicknames that would be bestowed upon me—The Peanut Butter Guy, Mr. Fluffernutter, and my personal favorite, The Godfather of Peanut Butter.

I guess it was kind of inevitable that people would start to look to me for information about all things peanuts and peanut butter. To be honest, I wasn’t really ready for that, and have really made an effort to educate myself about culinary history, farming methods, food science, and more in order to be more credible. I’m really grateful to all of the amazing people that have shared their knowledge with me.

How has work life changed since the recent peanut recall? When the recent PCA recall began, we worked hard to make sure we did everything “by the book,” and at the same time tried to follow basic common sense. First, we made sure that our products were completely unaffected and that PCA wasn’t part of our supply chain in any way. Then we communicated that information to consumers on our website and Facebook page, as well as through our email newsletter. We also sent letters and emails and faxes to all of our wholesale distributors and the retailers that carry our products.

Then we took a look at our entire operation and tried to find any places where we could do a better job when it comes to product safety. While we’ve always followed the American Peanut Council’s GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Practices) we’ve added extra tests on raw ingredients and finished product, more plant inspections, and increased record keeping to make sure that we are doing absolutely everything possible to produce a safe and wholesome product, and to make sure that if anything bad ever does happen, we have all the information we need close at hand.

The most interesting issue we had to deal with in regards to the recent PCA recall involves an interview I did with a major television network a few years ago. They sent footage of my hands spreading peanut butter on bread, shot during the interview, to their affiliates around the country to use as background video during their reports on the recall. Unfortunately, many of the stations also used the part of the video that showed jars of our peanut butter, which resulted in a lot of confusion and calls and emails from customers wanting to know if we were part of the recall. We had to contact the network and they had all of the stations issue on-air retractions.

In short, life after the recall has been full of hard work and surprises. It’s amazing to me how much time and money someone else’s mistakes can cost not only my company, but my entire industry.

What have you done to repair the public image of peanut butter? Well, I think everyone in the peanut butter business these days has had to become a bit of a spokesman for the industry—there’s just so much confusion out there. I’m a foodie at heart, and while that means a lot of different things to different people, for me it has always meant having a connection to where your food comes from.

We’ve used this as an opportunity to work on a number of outreach projects with the National Peanut Board, which represents America’s peanut farmers. Those farmers have taken some really bold moves to get in front of consumers and help clarify the issues. Their new ad campaign is really fantastic, and the events they held in New York City last week were very impactful.

I think the most important thing they are trying to get across is that all peanut butter in jars is safe to eat, and that the PCA recall has nothing to do with the overall safety of peanuts as a food—it’s about the unsanitary manufacturing conditions at one company, which represented less than one percent of peanut butter processed in the United States.

How has this one compared to past recalls? In 2007 there was the ConAgra recall that occurred at a plant that primarily produced just one mass market brand and one private label brand of peanut butter. It was a shock to consumers and to the industry, but after all of the facts came out, it was fairly easy for consumers to react, as the products in question were almost entirely limited to just those two brands, and everyone acted pretty swiftly.

Because the current PCA recall happened at a plant that mainly produced peanut butter which was to be used as an ingredient in other products, it has affected hundreds of companies and thousands of products in many different categories (crackers, energy bars, pet food) and it has been very confusing for consumers.

OK, time for less serious stuff. Your favorite kind of peanut butter? Of the Peanut Butter & Co. products, I’d have to say Cinnamon Raisin Swirl is my favorite, but Dark Chocolate Dreams is our top seller.

I've read about your peanut butter memorabilia collection? Most bragworthy pieces? Oh that’s a tough one! It’s a toss-up between a Mary Jane (peanut butter and molasses candy) die cut cardboard counter stand and a McColl's peanut butter ceramic bank. They both have great graphics, and are both pretty rare pieces.

Favorite (but most unexpected) sandwich combo? Smooth or crunchy peanut butter with bread and butter pickle slices. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it—but it’s awesome!

Favorite kind of milk? Full fat with a little chocolate and malt syrup stirred in. Ronnybrook if it’s available.

Now for some non-peanut questions. Best pizza in the city? Sullivan Street Bakery. A non-traditional slice for sure, but delicious nonetheless, and it’s right down the street from our sandwich shop.

Favorite burger? It’s not one of those new fancy burger places, but the Turkey Burger Deluxe with a slice of cheddar from the Moon Rock Diner on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) does me right every time. Extra ketchup for the steak fries, and a glass of unsweetened ice tea with lemon, please.

Favorite bagel? The Bagel Store on Bedford Street in Williamsburg. I’ve turned so many people onto these! They’re not cheap, but I think you get four free when you buy a dozen, and the bags of day-olds they sell from a milk crate on the floor next to register are a great value and perfect for slicing, freezing, and toasting later!

Best late-night eats? Menchanko-Tei has two outposts in Midtown and is open until 11:30 p.m. during the week and until 12:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Their noodles are amazing and very authentic. My favorite dish there is the Tori Kara Menchanko: ramen noodles in a soy broth with tofu, veggies, and seafood, topped with Japanese-style fried chicken. The rice balls are very good too. They don’t deliver though, so I’m lucky I live right down the street!

Undiscovered gem? Well, nothing truly good in New York stays undiscovered for too long. These guys get a fair amount of press, but I still find people that don’t know about The Treats Truck, which I think is a great concept with some really tasty baked goods. The Oatmeal Chocolate Chippers, Caramel Crème Sandwich cookies, and Raspberry Brownies are out of this world!

Guilty pleasures? The Mozzarepa stand at any street festival. Who knew fried cornmeal and melted mozzarella could taste so good together?

Food you won't eat? I don’t really go for organ meats or offal, but I admit that I find it hard to resist a nice slice of foie gras when it’s offered to me.

Most memorable New York City meal? I am very fortunate to have dined at Rao’s, and cherish my membership in that very exclusive club…the food really is every bit as delicious as you’d hope it to be.

Who is your go-to person for restaurant recommendations? These days I find myself turning to Andrew Rigie, the new director of the Manhattan chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. He has his pulse on what’s going on.

What's the best recommendation he's given you? I don’t remember if this came from him or not, but my new favorite weekend brunch spot is Brasserie Cognac on Broadway and 55th Street. Really delicious French bistro food, a courteous staff, generous portions, and a Bellini—all for a very reasonable price on a well thought out prix fixe menu. It’s like going to Paris without the jetlag.