Vassar’s Own “Peanut Butter Guy"

By Emily Strasser ‘10

The idea of opening a sandwich shop serving creative variations on classic peanut butter sandwiches first occurred to Lee Zalben ’95 when he was a senior at Vassar. Living in a Terrace Apartment and cooking for himself for the first time, he found he enjoyed playing around with unusual ingredients and flavor combinations. Three years later, passing an empty storefront in Manhattan’s West Village, Zalben saw his future. The day after he toured the space, he quit his job in publishing and dedicated himself to learning everything he could about peanut butter.

Using a food processor in his cramped apartment, Zalben began to test peanut butter recipes, experimenting with flavors such as dark chocolate, white chocolate, and cinnamon raisin, which have since become signatures of his Peanut Butter & Co. brand. In December 1998 he opened Peanut Butter & Co. on Sullivan Street, serving up childhood classics alongside inventive gourmet originals. Today, 13 years later, you can still stop in for a nostalgic “Lunch Box Special” or a more adventurous “Peanut Butter BLT.”

Zalben explains how the shop evolved. “From the very first day, people started coming back to us with Tupperware containers, saying, ‘Great sandwich, Lee, but can I take home some of that peanut butter?’” Soon he began to sell jars of all-natural peanut butter flavored with his signature creative combinations. “Peanut Butter & Co. peanut butter is the kind of peanut butter that mom buys for herself and maybe shares with her kids,” Zalben explains. In 2003 he finally caved in to retailers clamoring for his peanut butter and began distributing jars to specialty food stores around New York City. By 2005 Peanut Butter & Co. was showing up in Kroger and other national grocery chains. Today the company makes 10 all-natural flavors that appeal to adults as well as to kids, and it is stocked in almost 60 percent of U.S. supermarkets. Zalben expects to do $13 million in sales in 2013.

The company has maintained a commitment to environmental and social-justice issues throughout its successful growth. Peanut Butter & Co. is proud to use all USA-grown peanuts from within 200 miles of their factory in rural Georgia. “Using USA-grown peanuts is about taste and quality, but it is also about supporting hardworking farmers, and it’s better for the environment,” says Zalben. The Food Bank for New York City is just one of many organizations the company supports. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Peanut Butter & Co. donated 500 jars of peanut butter to some of the more damaged communities in Long Island and Queens, and employees made sandwiches for the storm victims.

Perhaps most important, “The Peanut Butter Guy,” as Zalben is now known, has not lost the spirit of fun that inspired him in the first place. “Excuse me,” Zalben says at one point during our phone interview. “I’m eating a peanut butter granola bar.” One of his favorite combinations is the unusual “Pregnant Lady” sandwich served at the Sullivan Street shop—peanut butter with bread-and-butter pickles served on bakery white bread. “I love peanut butter in so many different ways, and I never get tired of trying out new ways to enjoy it.”

I test this assertion by pitching him a new one. “Have you ever tried peanut butter and horseradish?” My grandfather discovered this odd combination while poking around in an empty fridge one day. “No, I have not,” he admits. “But I can certainly see using a little bit of freshly grated horseradish with our spicy peanut butter.”

George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist known as “The Peanut Man” for his popularization of peanuts as an alternative crop to cotton during Reconstruction, is said to have advised, “Learn to do the common things uncommonly well.” This motto describes Vassar’s own “Peanut Butter Guy” perfectly.

Emily Strasser ‘10 will begin an MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota this fall.