Selling Boulder’s taste buds

Ever since Red Zinger hooked up with Velveeta, beloved hometown natural food brands have left us for the big bucks

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Winneconne, WI - 7 April 2021: A six pack of Oskar blues Dales pale ale beer on an isolated background
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Dear Dale’s Pale Ale, 

I’m breaking up with you!

I know we’ve been in “like” for years. You were always my go-to, easy-to-recommend local brew. 

Then I woke up one morning recently to your Dear John note. Oskar Blues brewery is marrying Monster Energy Drinks, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola. 

Ewwww! Are you really going out with them?

Now you’re just a beer that I used to know. 

I guess I should be used to it. Born in the Summer of Tea, 1969, Celestial Seasonings is the mythic mother of all Boulder natural food favorites. In 1984, Celestial Seasonings was sold to the cheese-kings, Kraft Foods. The tea-maker was eventually bought back and now is owned by New Jersey-based Hain Celestial.

Since then, a parade of healthy Boulder County favorites, from White Wave tofu to Izze soda and Horizon Organic Milk, have charmed their way into our taste buds and budgets, only to ditch us for the sexy capitalists from out of town and end up on shelves across the nation.     

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With mountains in its logo, those tasty Boulder Canyon Chips are actually owned by Pennsylvania’s Utz Brands. Justin’s topnotch nut butters are made by the same folks who produce SPAM, the handy canned pork product. Lily’s sugarless chocolate company was recently inhaled by Hershey’s, the owner of Twizzlers and another Colorado food legend, Jolly Rancher. America’s top organic hummus—Louisville-based Hope—left a note on the kitchen counter saying it was running away with a French dude, Savencia Fromage & Dairy.

I know I should just let it go and move on, but I cringe every time I walk the supermarket aisles.  

For a reality check, I called Steve Hoffman, a Boulderite who knows as much about the Boulder and national natural foods industry as anyone I know. He’s the founder of Compass Natural, the Boulder PR and marketing firm for natural products companies. 

“From when I first got involved with natural foods in 1985, we’ve seen the evolution of natural foods in Boulder with consolidation and acquisitions,” Hoffman says. 

It’s true in grocery stores. Boulder’s Pearl Street Market begat Alfalfa’s Market, which was eaten by Wild Oats Markets (which started as Crystal Market on Pearl Street), then assimilated by Whole Foods Markets before Alfalfa’s was reborn only to die again recently. 

“The cream of the crop of Boulder companies always get scooped up by major multinational food companies. They have the money for acquisitions,” Hoffman says. 

“These companies usually have owners and investors who want or compel an exit. They use the funds to invest in other companies,” Hoffman explains. In other words, they don’t mean to betray you. They were just born to be sold. 

That said, Hoffman admits that after a beloved Boulder company gets in bed with a multinational concern, the relationship changes. 

“I’ve certainly seen instances where a brand will get bought and the products change. You won’t maintain consumer loyalty that way,” he says.

The companies that have kept the romance with Boulderites warm are the ones where the founder is still involved, as is the case at Justin’s. Other products are still actually made here—like Sleepytime Tea and Rudi’s Organic Cinnamon Raisin Bread—and employ many Boulder County residents. While Dale’s Pale Ale has been “merged,” the beloved Oskar Blues taproom restaurants are still owned locally. 

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However, some formerly local natural foods companies simply retain offices here so they can put “Boulder” on their labels and bask in Boulder’s good glow.

Frankly, we feel used. Boulder County residents have long been the food industry’s guinea pigs, an admittedly well-fed set of pet palates.  

We’re too easy because of our aspirations and our desire to buy local, eat local, support local and drink here now. We feel connected to the story about the nerdy entrepreneur who created healthy foods out of love. It’s intimate. We welcome EVOL frozen foods and Silk milk into our kitchens and bedrooms. 

Hoffman points out that the history of natural foods in beautiful Boulder is a lot like the local high-tech industry and, frankly, other occupations, like journalism. 

“Once you’re here you want to stay. Celestial Seasonings and Alfalfa’s Market started a family tree of local companies,” he says. Once Boulder had a critical mass of granola, sprouts and plant-based people, it became the epicenter of the natural foods world … and still is.

While Steve Hoffman avoids romantic attachments to snack foods, he is clear-eyed about the products he buys and promotes today. “I support a food product that is helping to fight climate change. As a cancer survivor I support organic foods. People tell me organic foods are too expensive. You should try the costs of health care,” he says. 

Hoffman suggests consumers still buy and love local food companies that go beyond non-GMO and organic and support regenerative agriculture and zero waste. 

Me? I’ve got a heavy crush on a bevy of new, small, beautiful artisan organic foods products made with care in Boulder County. I may ask a couple to go steady.

Local food news

Niwot’s new Farow Restaurant has been awarded the 2022 Snail of Approval Award because it follows Slow Foods’ sustainable and fair practices. … Local coming dining attractions include Mason’s Dumpling Shop, Maria Empanada, and Dickens 300 Prime Steakhouse in Boulder, and a Chicken Salad Chick—a chicken salad-centric eatery—in Longmont.

Words to chew on

“I would say if you are eating to impress anyone that you are not eating well and have misunderstood life.” —Francois de Melogue

John Lehndorff is the Boulder Weekly’s food editor and host of Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Contact: nibbles@boulderweekly.com

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