Naturally everywhere

Boulder County’s natural foods community exports a vision of capitalism with a conscience.

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Naturally boulder started by helping local natural products businesses find their footing in the larger food industry. It’s since expanded its reach across the country.
Courtesy of Naturally Boulder

It’s not easy going green, especially when you’re an entrepreneur trying to launch a new organic product. There are daunting hoops to jump through including regulations, financing and sourcing ingredients and packaging, all while trying to survive with your vision intact.

It can be a lonely mission because doing the sustainable thing is still not mainstream in American business. But since Naturally Boulder, a sustainable business accelerator, was founded in 2005, some local companies have found a feeling of togetherness. In 2019, companies in San Francisco, Austin and Chicago are joining the newly extended Naturally family, bringing that community sensation across the country.

Naturally Boulder is not your grandfather’s trade industry or chamber association. This being Boulder County, it’s more like a support group. 

“We are a community of natural products producers, not an economic club,” says Arron Mansika, executive director of Naturally Boulder, which now has 1,400 members. “On paper, Naturally Boulder delivers education and networking. In practice, members tell us it is much more than that. There’s so much dysfunction and negativity in business. I can’t tell you how many newcomers have told me that Naturally Boulder is a relief. They are looking for community.” 

For the past 14 years, Naturally Boulder has provided business education, contacts with industry mentors and opportunities to gather with industry peers. The guiding principles were created to promote regenerative business practices that improve human, animal and environmental welfare, and to make the information available to every company, large or small.

Naturally Boulder is best known for the annual Pitch Slam, which allows budding businesses to pitch their idea and their vision. The winner gets a package of business help to get their idea launched. The first Pitch Slam in 2006 lasted 15 minutes, Mansika says, and was won by Phil Anson. He pitched the foil-wrapped organic burritos he made in Eldorado Springs that became Evol Foods, now a hugely successful national business. (The Pitch Slam, by the way, now lasts two days.)

Drinking the Organic Kool-Aid

Mansika doesn’t think it was accidental that this non-profit organization was birthed in Boulder. “There is an unusually high degree of collaboration in the Boulder business community, but it’s not collaboration just to make a profit. It’s for the greater good. It’s a sense of: ‘You have plenty, I have plenty. We need to share.’ The natural products industry has always been mission driven,” he says.

The largest food companies used to ignore or mock smaller natural foods businesses. “Now they are marketing products that have fewer ingredients, better sourcing and less packaging, and they are buying small natural products companies. In the process they buy into the values because it’s part of the mission statement. They drink the Kool-Aid… well, the organic version,” he says.

Justin Gold was selling his organic nut butters at the Boulder County Farmers Market. He joined Naturally Boulder, grew his Justin’s Nut Butters and then sold it in 2016 to Hormel Corp., the makers of SPAM. In the early days of Boulder County’s natural products industry, such a company would have been dismissed as a “sellout” to corporate interests.

“I like what Justin said: ‘We’re not selling out. They’re buying in,’” Mansika says. “Hormel can see that natural foods is the only growth point in the industry. They bought it and have left it alone. The office is still right on Pearl Street.”

It’s not feel-good blather but rather solid, economic sense. Acute Market Reports predicts the natural and organic market to continue a compounded annual growth rate of 11.1 percent through 2026.

“We demonstrate to companies that there is large-scale demand for environmentally sound business practices, including cleaner supply chains and better-for-the-planet packaging,” Mansika says.

Courtesy of Naturally Boulder

Leveraging economics for the greater good

Justin’s Nut Butters and numerous other now-famous Boulder County-born natural products are available at thousands of mainstream supermarkets across the nation. “When you talk about the greater good you have to think about reaching a greater number of people and having an influence on how they spend their dollars,” Mansika says.

Over the years Naturally Boulder has fielded thousands of calls from companies and small organizations across the nation with questions about financing, scaling and sourcing. “We’ve always been happy to share information and our model,” Mansika says. “Some have asked how they could replicate Naturally Boulder in their area. I’ve always said that it helps to have 45 years of natural foods legacy like Boulder does.”

‘They Wanted the Integrity Piece’

The spark for the dawn of the new Naturally network came from inquiries from a group of natural products companies based in the San Francisco area. “It was really just a collection of like-minded people,“ Mansika says. “They didn’t just want our free advice, the mentorship and such. They wanted to directly align with Boulder. They wanted that integrity piece. We decided to expand the brand to the Bay Area last year.

“We have had an impact locally. We wanted to know if we could expand beyond the Boulder bubble to encourage sustainability nationally and push the envelope on food waste, electricity usage, packaging and other issues,” he adds.

After only a year of operating, Naturally Bay Area had already attracted 400 members and the word continues to spread.

“Naturally Bay Area provides a community for businesses that share environmental and social concerns working through similar challenges,” says Michael Anzalone, program director of Naturally Bay Area. “My favorite thing is that it is a big tent and includes everyone: manufacturers, service providers, investors, suppliers and growers.”

“Naturally Boulder has set the gold standard for creating collaboration in the natural products community,” says Don Buder, board member of Naturally Bay Area. “We wanted to replicate in Northern California what Naturally Boulder has done so well in its region.”

ACUTE MARKET Reports predicts the natural and organic market to continue a compounded annual growth rate of 11.1 percent through 2026. Courtesy of Naturally Boulder

Where are Your Executive Compost Bins?

With this track record of success, it wasn’t long before other cities started calling, which challenged Naturally Boulder to do in-depth due diligence.

“When we were approached by Chicago to affiliate, they gave us a list of people in the industry there who were supporting the idea,” Mansika says. “We looked at how these individuals supported and mentored companies even before they were profitable. Did they mentor just because the company had the right commitment to environmental stewardship? Do they give freely of their time to support entrepreneurs? We looked at how they handle the supply chain and food waste and support local agriculture, right down to maternity and paternity leave.”

Determining if companies share the same vision sometimes comes down to the little things that reveal whether a person and company are serious about sustainability. “We ask if there are compost bins in the company headquarters to see whether there is a genuine commitment,” he says.

Along the way there have been companies which have tried to ‘greenwash’ themselves and only talk-the-talk. But, integrity is of the upmost importance to Naturally Network. “We welcome newcomers into a community where we hold each other accountable,” Mansika says. “When there is a sense that someone isn’t doing the right thing, it is detected.”

In other words, the community that reveres transparency has a first-class B.S. detector when it comes to sustainability.

Naturally Network debuted recently as a new Boulder-based national organization replicating the model of Naturally Boulder but adjusting it to local needs. Naturally Bay Area is joined by Naturally Chicago and Naturally Austin. Next up is Naturally North Bay.

Groups in other cities have already expressed interest in joining Naturally Network including New Orleans, Boston, Eugene, Boise, Miami and two cities in New York state. “I see a hunger out there in the industry for a sense of community and doing something meaningful,” Mansika says.

Leaving a Legacy for the Year 2030

Can natural products make a significant difference in the direction the planet is heading in the next 11 years — before global warming passes the point of no return — regardless of what the federal government does policy-wise on sustainability?

For Mansika, that is a personal question. “As a dad, I think about my little guy, who will be 16 or 17 in 2030. What kind of world will he have?” he asks himself. 

“I hope by then all companies are extremely mindful of the environmental impact of everything they do. They should have an approach that is virtually cradle-to-cradle and takes responsibility for the product throughout its lifecycle. It won’t be a choice. It will be an eco-mandate. We’ll be forced by the environment to make serious changes,” he says, adding, “For consumers, natural products can be a gateway to greater mindfulness about sustainability. These are things they and their children interact with personally every day. The question they have to answer is: Where are you going to put your dollars? It’s like voting.” 

John Lehndorff writes the Nibbles column for Boulder Weekly and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.