The birth of Squirrel’s Nut Butter
It’s no wonder that Chris Thornley has committed his life to running. After all he grew up at Mile 85 of the Western States course in Cool, Calif.
“I was incredibly fortunate. I literally grew up watching Western States since I was 8 years old,” he says of the historic 100-mile race now directed by his brother, Craig. “It's been in my heart and soul of my family from day one.”
As a fifth-grader, his school had a challenge to run 50 miles during the school year.
“I realized that I enjoyed just going out by myself on the trails, away from a coach and all the other kids,” says Thornley, who completed 500 miles in that time frame. “It's pretty common in school, you just do what the coach tells you and you don't do anything further. At least at that age. I just loved being out in the woods by myself, jogging. Really, I wasn't very fast. I never broke the five-minute mile. I was right at five minutes in high school.”
After completing some sub 3-hour marathons and dabbling in ultras, Thornley took a break from running for about 10 years. Then he decided to try the Waldo 100K, a race created by Craig.
“I decided to try my brother's race, get off the couch and go see what that's all about,” he said. “That just started me right back. It's OK to walk and you can go really far when you walk and run.”
Thornley did the Waldo race for the next decade as well as six 100-milers, including Western States. While his running journey is well-established over time, his foray into being an entrepreneur was based out of necessity.
Solution from a salve
Thornley, who had owned a tree service company for about 14 years, met Stacy in 2013 and they were married two years later. That year Stacy was trying to concoct something in the kitchen to relieve their daughter’s eczema.
“All the over-the-counter and prescription salves and creams and whatnot, they just weren't quite cutting it for our daughter's eczema and so she created this salve. It's very, very similar to our original one.”
Stacy’s creation helped Sariah, who is 12 now.
“It worked 100 percent,” he says. “With eczema, you're trying to let the inflammation in the cracks heal. Once you get cracks in the eczema spots, then you get bacteria in there and you get little infections that causes inflammation. You're just trying to keep those closed, keep the skin hydrated. For some reason the blend really, really is soothing and it works.”
And that’s what planted the seeds for what quickly became Squirrel's Nut Butter, the solution for runners dealing with chafing problems.
“The weird thing about our product is if you were going out to create an anti-chafe, you would think about creating a barrier that was slippery,” Thornley explains. “But SNB was created to heal damaged skin first and it happens to be slippery. The beeswax gives it a foundation to ride on top of the skin to decrease the frequency of application. You're just hydrating the skin.”
The Thornleys just wanted relief for Sariah, they had no intention of starting a business. Then enter Squirrel.
‘That stuff really works’
Thornley had given a salve to one of the climbers in his tree service for his girlfriend’s dry skin. The climber, nicknamed Squirrel, tried the salve for a bike ride one day when he was out of chamois butter.
“He put that on for a ride in Sedona and came back and just said, ‘Chris, that stuff really works,’" Thornley recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, that would be really funny to name it after him and call it, Squirrel's Nut Butter.’"
But first Thornley needed to make sure it worked for ultra runners in tough conditions. Matt Keyes tried it at Western States in 2015.
“It was the first time somebody used it at the 100-mile distance,” he recalls. “Matt said it was the least amount of chafing he's ever had, and that was his ninth Western States finish. Once we heard that feedback, then we knew we were onto something.”
Squirrel’s Nut Butter was launched by the end of that year, focusing on 100-mile races and runners. The company’s first three ambassadors were Michael Wardian, Jim Walmlsey and Pete Kostelnick.
“That's not a bad three to start with. Wardian said that nothing else was working. So we gave him some and he loved it. We've been with him ever since. Quite the gift, the ambassadors who we started with.”
The Squirrel's Nut Butter that is used by runners ranging from elites to mid-packers to others today is very similar to Stacy’s original concoction. (Read my review of SNB from last year.)
“The original had sweet orange essential oil in it,” he notes. “My wife is an allergy nurse. It became very obvious to me, through her, that we needed to omit as many things as possible for people who have allergies. Some people have an allergic reaction to citrus. And we also hardened it. We put more beeswax in it. The more beeswax you put in, the better protection you have against chafing.”
A bright future
Like many small businesses, Squirrel's Nut Butter has had to adapt quickly to the realities of the pandemic. Thornley and two other employees wear masks and use hand sanitizer throughout the production process.
Even though SNB already had a strong online retail position, hundreds of brick and mortar stores shut them out.
“We were very fortunate to already have our online sales in place,” Thornley says. “That seemed to be key to just surviving. “REI shut us down for two months but Amazon sales were strong and our direct to consumer sales were very, very strong, so it got us right through.”
Thornley says they cut expenses and the future is bright.
“We went lean right away and we came out the other side,” he says. “We're definitely thriving. It certainly isn't going to be the year that we had anticipated, but we're doing fine. We're going to survive this. We're lucky.”
COVID has forced races to cancel, turn virtual or limit field sizes and take on other precautions. It’s at those events where SNB often focuses its marketing.
“My favorite part of the business is traveling to races and working aid stations and talking to people. Honestly, the social media is just so powerful. It's still driving interest in people to our brand.”
Looking ahead to the future for Squirrel's Nut Butter, Thornley says a mineral sunscreen with few ingredients has been in development.
“With the pandemic, we're having to push that back a little bit into probably next year because of the cost to bring that to market. We're just trying to ride this pandemic out just to make sure we know that we're finished before we go further to bring it to market.”
The early reviews are a good sign.
“We love it. The product testers are loving it and it works great. Just like our other product, it's just minimal ingredients that are as natural as can be.”
Name: Chris Thornley
Hometown: Cool, Calif.
Number of years running: 42
How many miles a week do you typically run: Hardly any since pandemic started. Lame.
Point of pride: Showing up
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pizza
Favorite piece of gear: Hoka Speedgoats and of course, Squirrel's Nut Butter
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Embrace the unknown
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
Facebook: Chris Thornley, Squirrel's Nut Butter