How Boulder Grew to become the Silicon Valley of Pure Merchandise


On a brisk day this previous October, Juan Ignacio Stewart invitations attendees at an annual pitch slam in Boulder to sip samples of Frescos Naturales—canned, carbonated aguas frescas he began making simply 9 months earlier than. The occasion is hosted by Naturally Boulder, a membership group that helps the Entrance Vary’s pure merchandise business, and Stewart is a finalist. In just a few hours, he’ll current his product to a group of judges and traders who—if he wins—may present his fledgling firm with funding, mentorship, and the prospect to exhibit Frescos at a significant nationwide commerce present.

Frescos’ packaging, with its brilliant colours and daring lettering, conveys the identical confidence as Stewart, and those that can learn the Spanish phrases on the labels—tamarindo, rosa de Jamaica, maracuyá—know immediately what’s inside. The all-natural, low-sugar fruit drinks flavored with elements akin to tamarind, hibiscus, and keenness fruit are in style all through Mexico and Central and South America. However Stewart’s variations are distinctive: The soda substitutes will not be solely bubbly (a refreshing twist on traditional, flat aguas frescas), however they’re additionally made by and for the Latino neighborhood, a market that, in response to Stewart, is untapped within the U.S. pure meals scene. “[The tamarindo flavor] tastes so good—it tastes like residence,” says Stewart, who grew up in Guatemala however moved to Boulder when he was 17. “It tastes like nothing the markets right here have.”

The 40-year-old entrepreneur’s firm is only one of a whole lot which have joined the Naturally Boulder community since its inception in 2005, and he’s one among many bold founders aspiring to seize a slice of the nation’s $274 billion pure and natural merchandise business, which incorporates all-natural provisions, plant-based and dairy-free meals options, and chemical-free family and private care items. The sector has seen sharp progress because the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when well being and wellness have been central to the general public discourse. In 2020, Individuals purchased a file $62 billion value of natural meals, a rise of 12.4 p.c from 2019.

However even earlier than the pandemic-born good-food revolution, Boulder, with its entrepreneurial spirit and a inhabitants identified for its crunchy way of life, had lengthy cultivated a pure merchandise neighborhood, main some to make use of a now-clichéd phrase: It’s the Silicon Valley of pure meals. Invoice Capsalis, the chief director of Naturally Boulder, says this moniker, drained or not, refers back to the means a neighborhood bolsters itself by means of shared information, experience, and funding. “[In Silicon Valley], when you might have that sort of success, it tends to construct on itself,” he says. “And the identical factor has occurred right here in Boulder.”

In 1969, Mo Siegel started making tea from Colorado’s wild herbs and, shortly thereafter, based Celestial Seasonings, an all-natural tea firm primarily based in Boulder that might turn into a family title all through the nation. In 1977, White Wave (the maker of Silk soy milk) began producing a few of the first dairy-alternative merchandise within the nation from its tofu-making facility on East Arapahoe Avenue. All through the Nineteen Nineties, firms akin to Horizon Natural, Wild Oats Market, and Third Road Chai additionally cropped up in Boulder at a time when John Simmons, founding father of Third Road Chai, says pure merchandise have been solely bought on to customers through co-ops and farmers’ markets, as a result of grocery shops wouldn’t inventory them. The merchandise catered to a particular, health-focused viewers that responded to a country label with “some sort of hippie affirmation on it,” he says. “Again then, [natural foods meant] sprout sandwiches. It was very intimate and lovely.”

However main as much as the flip of the century, Boulder’s meals companies have been outgrowing that cuteness. Celestial Seasonings had been acquired by Kraft Inc. in 1984 for $40 million. White Wave’s gross sales grew from $6 million in 1993 to $29.6 million in 2000.

By the early 2000s, there was concern in Boulder that rising prices of residing—spurred by a inhabitants improve alongside the Entrance Vary—would deter entrepreneurs from beginning firms there. “It [was] an costly place to not solely begin an organization but additionally to lease an workplace or a manufacturing facility, so it [was] tempting to go away city,” says Capsalis, who’s lived in Boulder since 1984 and was one of many founding members of Naturally Boulder. To fight this, he says town supervisor within the early aughts granted one-time funds of $5,000 every to organizations in three industries—know-how, outside recreation, and meals and beverage—to bolster financial exercise. For the meals and beverage sector, that cash allowed the formation of a commerce affiliation, and in 2005 Naturally Boulder was formally born as a 501(c)(6) enterprise group.

At the moment, Capsalis says the group works with 300 manufacturers and serves 1,100 members. Whether or not these enterprise house owners are positioned in Boulder or not, they’ll pay a $65 annual membership payment to entry training and coaching supplies, monetary instruments, development stories, networking alternatives, and occasions, such because the pitch slam. Capsalis estimates that 65 p.c of the businesses he works with are early-stage startups doing lower than $5 million yearly in gross sales—a testomony, he says, to the realm’s incubating setting, which features a pool of knowledgeable, passionate customers desirous to style new merchandise and supply suggestions at locations like Boulder-area farmers’ markets.

For Justin Gold, founding father of Justin’s Nut Butter, farmers’ markets helped flip an thought born whereas ready tables right into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Sharing samples, Gold says, gives instantaneous market information, whereas additionally introducing new merchandise to high-net-worth residents who could later turn into traders. The truth is, when Gold started in search of funding in 2005, “loads of these individuals already knew me and knew the model,” he says. “And so they had the cash to put money into issues that they love.” In 2016, Hormel Meals acquired Justin’s for $286 million.

Gold considers himself a part of the second technology of founders to have achieved success arising by means of Boulder’s pure meals scene. He and others adopted the path blazed by mentors akin to Steve Demos at White Wave, whose firm was bought by Dallas-based Dean Meals in 2002 for $204 million. “Gen One needed to make all of it up—actually, they needed to create [the industry],” Gold says. Whereas he and his second-generation contemporaries noticed a largely cleared path laid out for them, at the moment’s third technology has a veritable yellow brick street.

One of many rising stars treading that golden thoroughfare is Kristy Lewis, an East Coast transplant who began making luggage of chemical-free microwave popcorn in 2010. On the time, she was residing exterior of Boston and located that each cellphone name she was making to be taught extra about making a pure meals enterprise was dialing into Boulder. Lewis needed to be immersed in that community, and in 2013, she and her household headed west. “All of the indicators have been pointing to Boulder,” she says. “So we moved out right here and haven’t appeared again.” At the moment, her firm, Quinn, crafts greater than 20 all-natural snacks and secured $10 million in funding final summer time, due largely, she says, to the neighborhood’s supportive infrastructure. “Boulder has provided a lot greater than we ever anticipated,” she says.

The factor is, although, not everybody could make the transfer to Boulder. So, in 2019, Naturally Boulder began outsourcing its extremely prized community-building mannequin through the Naturally Community, a nationwide membership group primarily based on the Boulder mannequin that helps arrange and help affiliate chapters akin to Naturally Chicago and Naturally Bay Space. Very like how these organizations nurture their very own native communities, the Naturally Community fosters a physique of city-level chapters that depend on one another for recommendation.

Katrina Tolentino, government director of three-year-old Naturally Austin, which has 600 members, says that earlier than the chapter shaped, the neighborhood was fragmented, with no formalized setting during which firms may work together. Naturally Boulder supplied route for conjuring up bylaws, member advantages, and occasions—steering, she says, that united the ecosystem. When Naturally Austin hosted its first occasion, Tolentino says it was clear how a lot the group was wanted. “I feel it was the primary time that [we] actually noticed one another and the scale of the neighborhood,” she says of the occasion. “It generated an amazing quantity of pleasure and momentum.”

Since forming in 2019, the Naturally Community has grown to incorporate greater than 5,000 enterprise members representing greater than 20,000 entrepreneurs, workers, suppliers, service suppliers, and traders across the nation, with plans to maintain increasing. Affiliate chapters in cities akin to New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego are emulating the traits that make Boulder particular, akin to forming a tight-knit inventive providers business, fostering relationships with engaged customers, and cultivating mentorship alternatives. For Lewis, the distinction between being part of a neighborhood and attempting to do issues on her personal was clear when she attended her first Naturally Boulder occasion. “I keep in mind being like, Oh, my God, like, these are my individuals—everybody’s right here,” Lewis says. “It’s good to have that in your yard.”

Whereas many massive cities have strong expertise swimming pools and ancillary providers, Boulder’s properly runs deep for a metropolis of solely 100,000 individuals. Boulder’s Gen Three, as Gold calls it, has all of the connections it wants inside just a few miles from residence—from authorized professionals to graphic designers to net builders. One other main draw: funding. In 2021, Boulder startups (within the pure merchandise house and past) noticed $1.8 billion of enterprise capital circulation into their neighborhood, rating it twenty third within the nation for many capital funding amongst cities akin to Houston, Atlanta, and Denver, which ranks 14th.

Boulder’s pure merchandise neighborhood has even grown into a significant statewide business—one more reason for cities to observe its instance. A 2019 affect report discovered that the pure and natural meals business in Colorado contributes $2.1 billion to the state’s financial system and helps greater than 22,000 jobs throughout the state. Whereas this solely quantities to about 0.6 p.c of Colorado’s gross home product at the moment, the nation’s pure and natural merchandise business is anticipated to develop roughly 45 p.c by 2030.

On the pitch slam, Stewart took the stage to current his bubbly, canned Frescos drinks to the judges. After the 5 competing firms accomplished their three-minute shows and answered questions in entrance of the viewers, Stewart was declared the winner. “I knew earlier than I even began promoting canned Frescos that, if I did every thing that I used to be planning on doing and I needed to do, I’d be in that competitors,” he says. “I didn’t take into consideration profitable, however I completely knew I may make it.”

Amongst Stewart’s spoils: $3,000 money and a collection of in-kind enterprise providers valued at almost $75,000, in addition to an exhibitor’s sales space and probability to pitch on the Pure Merchandise Expo East 2022, which can happen this fall.

Since profitable, Stewart has put his vitality towards enlargement. He’s pursuing funding, and Frescos is now out there in eating places, cafes, and grocery shops akin to King Soopers. “I need to take Frescos coast to coast all around the nation and, ultimately, to Latin America,” he says. “I’ve massive desires for this.”

By means of all of it, Stewart says his success wouldn’t have occurred with out arising by means of the pure merchandise neighborhood within the metropolis he calls residence. “What I’ve all the time felt about Boulder,” he says, “is that, if I stayed right here, I may have entry to individuals and sources that might enable me to do nearly something I needed to do, if I set my thoughts to it.”

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