How Jill Van Gyn found salvation in peanut butter. Words :: Ben Osborne.
There’s no place like the back seat of a cop car for a bit of life introspection, and for Victoria-based Fatso Peanut Butter owner Jill Van Gyn, the future started exactly there.
Peanut Butter Salvation
“I was at rock bottom after my addiction and I hit a wall,” says Van Gyn, who had graduated university with goals of working in the United Nations but was finding more obstacle than opportunity in the job market.
After a few years of battling her addiction and coming out on top, Van Gyn then went on to get her Master’s degree with the top grades in her class—but still, the job market was dry.
“I was 35 and feeling aimless,” she says, “and disillusioned with the international scene, with academia, and this sort of promise that is made through social contracts. I felt like their end of the bargain wasn’t being held up. But there’s this sort of insanity you can embrace when you’re down there at the bottom that opens you up to opportunity.”
After a year and a half of cleaned-up, over-educated unemployment, the best work Van Gyn could find was at a local health food store. At the same time, she also became involved in the Victoria Crossfit community.
Then, along came peanut butter.
“There’s this sort of insanity you can embrace when you’re down there at the bottom that opens you up to opportunity.”
Reinventing a Brand
A perfect blend of fats, proteins and put-it-on-anything versatility/affordability, peanut butter is a time-honoured staple. At the health food store, Van Gyn noticed a local nut butter brand, Fatso, that took peanut butter a step further. Appreciating its unique recipe that included avocado and coconut oil, and no artificial sweeteners, she sensed an opportunity for the product to grow and approached the owners in hopes of working together. They declined.
And then, Fatso was shut down by the health authority. Apparently, the owners had been buying bulk ingredients at Costco and had turned their basement into an impromptu peanut butter factory, along the way violating a handful of BC health regulations. With zero credentials or experience in the world of foodstuffs or consumer goods, Van Gyn purchased the Fatso brand and set a simple first goal for herself.
New-and-Improved Fatso Peanut Butter
“I needed to not let this become one of those family dinner table conversations where someone would say, ‘remember that time Jill bought a peanut butter company? How stupid was that?’” she says. Her second goal—after perfecting the recipe (with help from her Crossfit friends and nutritionists) and sourcing a legitimate manufacturer—was to convince the world to spend a little extra on a better-quality peanut butter. In 2016, the first batch of new-and-improved Fatso peanut butter arrived at her door and the real work began.
Fatso’s secret sauce lies in its name—Van Gyn uses healthy fats and fibres instead of carbohydrates to deliver the energy required for big days in the mountains, on the water, or at the gym. “These fats are great for blood sugar regulation and energy,” says Landon McLean, a Whistler-based naturopathic doctor. “They deliver more energy per gram than carbs and help minimize the ‘crash’ you get from a carb-rich diet.”
“These fats are great for blood sugar regulation and energy. They deliver more energy per gram than carbs and help minimize the ‘crash’ you get from a carb-rich diet.”
Good Fats—and Good Causes
McLean explains that fats are burned as fuel during exercise, so adding healthy fats to your pre-routine—i.e., a spoonful of Fatso before you head out the door—is optimal for endurance activities. Fatso is also keto, vegan, and gluten-free to accommodate a variety of diets and lifestyles.
As Fatso succeeded, Van Gyn acknowledged the hurdles on her own path to success and established a socially responsible program to help others. Fatso donated hundreds of jars during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, contributed to social movements like Black Lives Matter, and partnered with Peers Victoria to help sex workers access the safety, support, and resources they need.
“If you have a platform, it’s your responsibility to use it—I really believe that,” Van Gyn says.
While she admits that diving into Fatso was a self-serving initiative at first—a way to focus and dig herself out of a hole—Van Gyn has grown a little B.C. peanut butter company into a force for better nutrition for athletes (like her professional snowboarder sister Robin Van Gyn) and a force for good in the world. Much like peanut butter itself, sometimes it’s the little things—human empathy, the ability to take risks, the support of a community—that pack the biggest punch.
From the Fall/Winter issue of ML Coast Mountains edition, out now.