Natural foods riding a boom

Offer from Canadian company emphasizes Boulder’s status as hotbed


Even though the cold weather is here, those of us without air conditioning still might object to the meaning of the term “hotbed.” A hot bed is not a good thing.

A hotbed, on the other hand, is. And that’s the term that World Wise Brands uses for the Boulder/Denver area’s booming natural and organics food industry.

The Canadian distribution company, which focuses on natural and organic products and currently distributes recognizable brands like Amy’s Kitchen frozen foods, Jones sodas, Blue Diamond almonds, Larabar and Snapple, recently announced its intention to import Boulder-area natural and organics products to central Canada, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of Ontario.

World Wise is Manitoba’s only distributor to specialize in organic, natural and gluten-free products, the company’s website says. Chris Boreski, World Wise’s general manager and co-founder, says Boulder has been on the company’s radar.

“There’s a lot of neat stuff there that we don’t have too much access to,” he says.

U.S. 36 might be known locally for some heavy traffic, but it’s known internationally for the natural and organic food companies located nearby, bolstered by trade organizations like Naturally Boulder. Paul Raab, a board member with Naturally Boulder and a partner with Linhart Public Relations, says there are lots of reasons natural food excels in the Boulder area, which he says carries its own “Boulder brand.”

“The Boulder brand, the Boulder and Colorado brand — a certain cache that goes with products that come from this part of the world,” Raab says. “You say Boulder, Colo., and people get a picture in their mind of a place, a lifestyle, a set of values that many people want to associate themselves with.”

He credits that to “a history of heritage and innovation.”

“So many had their start here,” he says. “Horizon Organic, Silk plantbased beverages, Celestial Seasonings. Rudi’s began in Boulder and Denver.” And he says the industry isn’t done yet.

“More recently, exciting new innovators like Justin’s Nut Butter and EVOL Foods burritos. Bhakti Chai, White Girl Salsa. A great lineup that has started here.”

For Adriane Little, marketing manager at Boulder Brands — a company that includes Smart Balance, Earth Balance, Udi’s and Glutino brands — Boulder’s brand was strong enough to inspire her to move.

“I moved here five years ago because I knew I wanted to be in the natural products industry, and every company I wanted to work for was here,” she says. “So I just made the move without a job.”

She says the community is very welcoming and helpful. Raab says consumers in the area have encouraged and supported the industry, too.

“People value what’s natural and what’s real and authentic,” he says, “as opposed to processed and manufactured.”

And that’s not just a Boulder mentality. Terms like organic, natural and holistic have penetrated the consciousness of people across North America, including the Canadian prairie, Boreski says. But distribution of organic and natural products hasn’t kept up with consumer interest.

“Typically in Canada the suppliers will look at the coast distributors, and the whole [central] area is really just a void,” he says.

“All across North America, not just in Boulder … people are becoming more aware of the impact of what they eat in terms of their own health and the health of the planet,” Raab says. “People are looking for options that will be better for them, their families and the earth.”

Raab says the import arrangement is a “win-win” because it’s important for natural products companies to expand and reach new consumers. And he and Little both note that the organic segment of the grocery industry is growing rapidly — at double-digit percentage rates per year, Raab says.

The World Wise offer is an opportunity, Raab says, for some of Boulder’s newer, smaller organic and natural companies to expand to the Great White North.

“It really potentially could create some opportunities for companies that are members of Naturally Boulder to grow sales and open a brandnew market,” he says. And he says securing distribution is one of the hardest parts of operating a natural foods business.

“One of the biggest challenges that emerging companies in natural and organic [markets] face is distribution. Competition for distribution is fierce, and it can be very challenging and time-consuming to get shelf space, especially in the so-called natural channel — Whole Foods, Sprouts, Alfalfa’s,” he says. “It’s challenging to get shelf space because, compared to conventional supermarkets, there isn’t necessarily as much shelf space.”

Little says Boulder Brands doesn’t have an initial interest in working with World Wise because the company already distributes in Canada. But Boreski says there’s opportunity for well-established businesses like Boulder Brands, too. He says larger distributors require a minimum order from a store or a chain of stores in order to deliver. That means independent stores — Winnipeg’s Sprouts or Alfalfa’s — can’t necessarily order a product from those distributors unless they feel confident they can sell a full pallet of soy milk or gluten-free bread.

“Winnipeg especially is built up of several independents,” Boreski says. “When they’re looking at ordering a unique product from the coast, it’s tough for them to meet those minimums. … They’re not going to be able to order a pallet of products. It’s not Toronto, it’s not British Columbia. It’s built up of a lot of independents that are looking for a distributor that can service those needs.”

Glancing at the list of Naturally Boulder members, Boreski points to Silk as a product that he knows there’s demand for on the Canadian plains. He says World Wise would reach out to independent stores to see if they haven’t yet brought in the product due to minimum requirements.

Raab also points out that independent stores purposely try to be different, which can help food producers get a foothold.

“Natural channel retailers here in the U.S. are looking not to carry what their conventional competitors [have], but carry something different,” he says. “They want different brands because they know their consumers are looking for something different, and they take some pride in doing it differently.”

Boreski says he doesn’t yet know which Naturally Boulder members will show interest in coming to central Canada.