Unfiltered at Natural Products Expo West

By Bart Taylor | Mar 21, 2016

The quiet food revolution that began in Colorado and places like Portland, Oregon, a couple decades ago ain't so quiet anymore. As the Boulder Daily Camera surmised earlier this year, "Food is the new tech, and Boulder is its Silicon Valley."

At the center of Colorado's nationally renowned ecosystem is Naturally Boulder, a trade group with nearly 1,000 members and oversized influence, having touched hundreds of natural products companies in some form or fashion the past decade or so.

Lat fall, I wrote about Naturally Boulder's high-energy 'Pitch Slam & Party,' an event that captures the DNA of the sector and puts it on full display, as select entrepreneurs pitch product and business ideas and vie for cash and a spot at Natural Products Expo West. It's a coveted prize: The event means important exposure for brands seeking, well, everything: money, connections, distribution, talent -- momentum.

This year's edition of Natural Products Expo West took place earlier this month, and I caught up with Bill Capsalis, Naturally Boulder's president pro tem, to get an update on the event and the pitch slam winners, and to talk about the sudden national prominence of Boulder County and where this compelling story may go next. (Well, maybe not so much where it goes next. Before we start, he's already rejected a 'trends' column.) Capsalis likes to keep the conversation grounded; his bullshit filter is well-refined.

Which is fine by me.

Bart Taylor: Bill you've told me this is your umpteenth Natural Products Expo West. Not sure whether congratulations or condolences are in order, but describe the event two weeks ago compared to some of the early events.

Bill Capsalis: I'm finding it hard nowadays to see the entire show in three days. There are so many people (80,000) and so many booths (3,000) that you find yourself in traffic jams in the aisles, especially in front of certain booths with delicious food being shared. You have to be careful because you can eat 2,500 calories of chocolate, chips, and other snacks and drinks before you make it down three aisles at the show.

This is my first pet peeve -- it sometimes feels as if the show has become a snack and drink event. One thing the world probably doesn't need any more of is snacks and bottled drinks. It seems we are hell-bent on replicating what big food companies have been doing for years -- continually adding more and more iterations of the same products into the store shelves -- but the problem is the stores are running out of room for more products. I predict a course correction on the innovation side of things in the future, but for now, bring on the Matcha in a can, and may I please have some more probiotic drinks?

BT: Three-thousand booths? Wild Zora won NB's event this summer, and to your point, is a snack food. Seems it would be silly to say they 'stood out.' Was it still important for them to be at the Expo?

BC: Wild Zora was perfectly positioned as part of the hot new products hall. What makes Wild Zora different is that they are riding the wave of the Paleo diet explosion, so for a lot of reasons they don't fit into the "copycat" snack product category. They commanded attention because, after all, it's a meat bar!

When I saw them they were having a good show, meeting some great people. I haven't spoken with them since but I suspect they will say it was a great event for them on many levels. I have said many times before that, often at this show, it can be more obvious who isn't there than who is there. So for young brands like Wild Zora and many others from Colorado, it is really an important step in their evolution as a brand.

BT: So what's your second pet peeve?

BC: Pet peeve number two: how over time, food becomes like fashion. Products that were hot 10 or more years ago just aren't hot any more -- like super fruits from South America, not hot any more. There is some logic behind these fads that come and go; as product innovators and formulators look for more and better ingredients they scan the globe bringing us amazing things like quinoa from South America, ancient grains from our own soils, and plant-based functional ingredients that can heal us like turmeric which is a staple in the Ayurvedic way of life. Generally I'm a fan of all of these ingredients and find the most interesting products are the ones that focus on functional health benefits for us all. It kind of makes me chuckle to see a small handful of cold-brew coffee companies one year and then 25 the next! Today's food entrepreneurs have access to a lot of data and they understand when a category gets hot that it is time to jump on it and become the leader in the space or be left chasing the limited shelf space. Keep an eye out for protein from creepy crawlers -- cricket protein is on the rise.

BT: Yes, I recall a bug protein product at your summer event. Where does all this leave Boulder and Colorado? Is there a natural food or products direction that's a unique fit for this ecosystem?

BC: Boulder, Denver, and Colorado as a whole have a very unique place in the natural and organic products industry and I don't see that changing. If anything we will become more important as time goes on.

The amount of innovation coming out of just Boulder alone is astonishing. There were about 50 companies represented at Expo West this year from this area and I think this will continue to grow. Our trade association Naturally Boulder currently has 1,000 individual members and I don't see that number declining, only going up. When you consider the high number of entrepreneurs in this area willing to take the risk to launch a food brand, then look at all the businesses set up to help them grow and learn, including publications like CompanyWeek, it creates a web of support unequaled in other parts of the country. The climate for change in the food system seems evident to me and we are sitting on top of it here in Colorado.

As for bugs as protein sources, probably not for me. But the company founder told me he was working on ways to scale up his production so that they could use it to feed livestock. The possibilities seem endless.

Read more later from Bill Capsalis.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.