Boulder struts its (food) stuff

By Bart Taylor | Oct 20, 2015

For the 25 companies 'pitching' to the judging panel at the 11th annual Naturally Boulder Pitch Slam & Party, the questions came fast and followed a pattern:

"What's the SRP (suggested retail price) and the shelf-life of your product?"

"Where do you manufacture? What's the long term plan?"

"Where do you experience your highest (retail) 'velocity'?"

"How do you differentiate your product in the crowded (fill in the blank) category?"

At stake for the winner was coveted booth space at Natural Products Expo West next March, spending cash, free business consulting and the attention and adulation of an industry sector that today has become a national superstar in the multi-billion dollar natural products industry.

The winner was Wild Zora -- profiled in CompanyWeek last year -- a husband and wife team whose tasty natural meat and vegetable snack bars (think ingredient-enhanced jerky) stood out from a group of four or five products that were clearly the cream of the crop. Josh and Zora Tabin's story is as compelling as their snacks, which seem poised for a national breakout if the company can scale manufacturing, no small issue when meat is involved. Zora's kitchen gets a daily visit from food safety inspectors.

Food startups dominated the proceedings, and product themes followed familiar trends in the natural and organic sector -- gluten-free was a staple -- with some some quirky, inventive angles. There were RollinGreens' 'tater tots made with millet instead of potatoes; Cow's Gone, a non-dairy ice cream with coconut milk and natural sweeteners; Rowdy Mermaid kombucha, inspired by the owner's charming daughter; cold-filtered coffee and a slew of interesting brownies, cookies and a 'savory' snack bars. Savory flavoring in the energy bar category also seems a new trend. 'Paleo' is still in. Grain-based, sweet-tasting snacks were nowhere to be found.

Josh and Zora Tabin

But as narratives go, the food companies this year took a back seat to the larger spectacle of the event itself and the unspoken feeling among the packed house at the St Julien Hotel & Spa that this community may be changing the rules of an entire industry sector. I congratulated a beaming Clif Harald of the Boulder Economic Council on the event. The companies, he said, "are perfect examples of the fresh ideas and entrepreneurship fueling this important sector of Colorado's economy."

Harald is right, of course, but the implications of the annual gathering seem wider. The event brings to light the sea change in how new products are being brought to market, in how the industry innovates. The days of industrial food companies devising the next mega-snack in a laboratory, with a top-down go-to-market strategy, feels far away from these companies. These are passion-fueled entrepreneurs, prototyping in apartment kitchens and earning their chops at farmers markets. Buyers from Whole Foods and Lucky's provide the big break, offering shelf space for the most promising to test retail 'velocity' -- that is, how fast and furious the product sells. It's a ground-up, organic methodology, and its become the new norm in developing the next great thing -- a Larabar, ProBar, or 34 Degrees cracker.

Equally transformative is the manufacturing ecosystem, the network of co-packers and maker resources that help the high-velocity brands manufacture in sufficient volume to meet the demand that regional and national distribution requires. Co-packers manufacture for multiple brands. They're Colorado's most unheralded business catalysts, providing critical lift to food companies that inevitably must wrestle with the challenge of making more stuff.

Yet the manufacturing component seems poised to evolve again. Co-packers like Fresca, Kitchen Coop and Natural Food Works can work with a limited number of brands; demand is outstripping the supply of co-packing capacity. And some co-packers are launching in-house food brands. With solutions like The Food Corridor on the horizon to connect food brands with other manufacturing opportunities, the next great wave of food innovation may develop around, not through, today's network of established food manufacturers.

As with other lifestyle manufacturing in Colorado, support from the state's economic development office is a head-scratcher. I learned that a list of Colorado's co-packers can be found in the Department of Agriculture's web pages, because snack bars are made from ag products. But so is Voormi's vaunted new high-tech outdoor apparel, made from from Rocky Mountain-sourced wool. One assumes Voormi is not an ag business.

It's a manufacturing business, but policy makers should eventually find a way to provide promotional lift to Colorado's food business, including its world-class manufacturing value-chain. Clif Harald accurately surmised, "We are recognized around the globe as an epicenter for natural and organic product innovation and leadership."

That it all starts with 25 passionate entrepreneurs pitching to a room full of discerning industry supporters only makes is sweeter.

Er, more savory.