How artisan brand Forty Thieves moved from market stalls to supermarket aisles around New Zealand
The nut butter industry, known to be tough to crack, didn’t unnerve this health-conscious couple. Four years later, their nut buttery stocks more than 400 retailers nationwide.
Words: Cari Johnson
Leave it to a producer of nut butter to recognize a sticky situation when one occurs. When the nation was in the middle of a lockdown in early 2020, Shyr and Brent Godfrey were told their nut-butter brand Forty Thieves wouldn’t launch in Countdown for another year.
The deal, which took three years to secure, came to an anxiety-inducing halt. “The contract with Countdown was set to double our business overnight. We thought it was going to make or break it for us,” says Shyr.
Be it magic or the result of smooth talking — the duo managed to strike a compromise in the nick of time. Three of their best-selling nut butters are now stocked in the majority of the country’s Countdown stores. “We made sure we said yes to everything. We did everything in our power to help make it easy for Countdown to take us on board,” says Shyr.
Shyr and Brent, who are based in Silverdale, knew little about nut-butter production when they launched Forty Thieves in 2016. The active pair were keen to begin a health-food business in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), having returned from Australia and a nine-month backpacking trip around the world. Nut butter was a healthy, protein-rich spread that fueled many of their adventures.
At the time, there was no shortage of peanut-butter brands in New Zealand, but that didn’t deter them. Shyr and Brent were confident there was still a gap in the market.
“Some products are marketed as super healthy, but their ingredients tell a different story. We wanted an honest brand where the front label matched the ingredients on the back label,” says Shyr.
The Forty Thieves range includes 11 core products, all of which are free of added oils, preservatives and sulphites. Not even salt is added to the pure spreads, such as almond and cashew butter, which are 100 per cent nuts.
“Nuts are such simple, healthy ingredients on their own. We love building on the hard work that Mother Nature has already done for us,” says Shyr.
This simple-is-best philosophy is applied to all aspects of the business. In the early years, Shyr and Brent spread their limited resources across four farmer’s markets per weekend. Staff and facilities naturally expanded as they slowly secured contracts with health-food stores, Farro Fresh, Foodstuffs (123 stores and counting) and, most recently, Countdown. “We upgraded as we went, growing sustainably so that we haven’t had to take on investors,” says Shyr.
There was plenty of trial-by-error along the way. Peanut butter was too predictable to be their first product; instead, they launched with tahini (“people didn’t quite understand,” says Shyr) and then a range of unconventional nut-butter blends. “We learned quickly that those products didn’t solve a problem,” says Shyr. The pair struck gold when they tuned in to what market-goers wanted: pure almond butter and 500-gramme jars.
“Championing those ideas changed everything for us.” Good ideas spread fast among competitors, so complacency is never an option. As one of the newest brands in the nut-butter aisle, Forty Thieves must continuously stay ahead of the market with new releases. Superfood, their latest launch, required staff to taste more than 50 iterations to get it just right. The seed-and-nut blend is now one of their flagship products — as is, ironically, peanut butter.
Says Shyr: “Nut butter is a super-competitive yet small market. Our success comes from constantly staying ahead and sticking to our values.”
Elevator pitch: Forty Thieves produces almond, peanut, macadamia, cashew, and confectionery spreads free of added oils and preservatives; dried fruit is sulphite-free. The product is packed in 90 per cent recycled glass jars with 100 per cent recyclable labels.
Headwinds: Retail margins are low when factoring in discounts and tastings, but these are non-negotiable expenses that help expose products to new customers.
Tailwinds: The launch into Countdown funded the move to a brand-new factory, which doubled production capabilities almost overnight. Forty Thieves has won a string of awards since inception, most recently a gold medal at the 2020 Outstanding New Zealand Food Producer Awards for its Chai Spiced Almond with Fruit Pieces.
What’s next? Now that the pair are less focused on growth, Shyr and Brent hope to increase the level of support Forty Thieves gives to local charities. “As an individual, you can only give so much, but as a business, you have more power,” says Shyr.
Lessons: “It’s important to keep customers at the forefront of new product ideas. Loving a product yourself doesn’t guarantee success. Hold focus groups and ask questions before launch. If a product no longer works because the market has changed, spend your time and energy to create new products that work better for your customers.”
140,000 units produced in the past 12 months
52% increase in production year on year
94% increase in net profit
4 export markets (USA, China, Taiwan, Singapore)