On a brisk day this past October, Juan Ignacio Stewart invites attendees at an annual pitch slam in Boulder to sip samples of Frescos Naturales—canned, carbonated aguas frescas he started making just nine months before. The event is hosted by Naturally Boulder, a membership organization that supports the Front Range’s natural products industry, and Stewart is a finalist. In a few hours, he will present his product to a team of judges and investors who—if he wins—could provide his fledgling company with funding, mentorship, and the chance to exhibit Frescos at a major national trade show.

Frescos’ packaging, with its bright colors and bold lettering, conveys the same confidence as Stewart, and those who can read the Spanish words on the labels—tamarindo, rosa de Jamaica, maracuyá—know instantly what’s inside. The all-natural, low-sugar fruit drinks flavored with ingredients such as tamarind, hibiscus, and passion fruit are popular throughout Mexico and Central and South America. But Stewart’s versions are unique: The soda substitutes are not only bubbly (a refreshing twist on classic, flat aguas frescas), but they’re also made by and for the Latino community, a market that, according to Stewart, is untapped in the U.S. natural food scene. “[The tamarindo flavor] tastes so good—it tastes like home,” says Stewart, who grew up in Guatemala but moved to Boulder when he was 17. “It tastes like nothing the markets here have.”

The 40-year-old entrepreneur’s company is just one of hundreds that have joined the Naturally Boulder network since its inception in 2005, and he’s one of many ambitious founders aspiring to grab a slice of the country’s $274 billion natural and organic products industry, which includes all-natural provisions, plant-based and dairy-free food alternatives, and chemical-free household and personal care goods. The sector has seen sharp growth since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when health and wellness have been central to the public discourse. In 2020, Americans bought a record $62 billion worth of organic food, an increase of 12.4 percent from 2019.

But even before the pandemic-born good-food revolution, Boulder, with its entrepreneurial spirit and a population known for its crunchy lifestyle, had long cultivated a natural products community, leading some to use a now-clichéd phrase: It’s the Silicon Valley of natural foods. Bill Capsalis, the executive director of Naturally Boulder, says this moniker, tired or not, refers to the way a community bolsters itself through shared knowledge, expertise, and funding. “[In Silicon Valley], when you have that kind of success, it tends to build on itself,” he says. “And the same thing has happened here in Boulder.”

In 1969, Mo Siegel began making tea from Colorado’s wild herbs and, shortly thereafter, founded Celestial Seasonings, an all-natural tea company based in Boulder that would become a household name throughout the country. In 1977, White Wave (the maker of Silk soy milk) started producing some of the first dairy-alternative products in the country from its tofu-making facility on East Arapahoe Avenue. Throughout the 1990s, companies such as Horizon Organic, Wild Oats Marketplace, and Third Street Chai also cropped up in Boulder at a time when John Simmons, founder of Third Street Chai, says natural products were only sold directly to consumers via co-ops and farmers’ markets, because grocery stores wouldn’t stock them. The products catered to a specific, health-focused audience that responded to a rustic label with “some kind of hippie affirmation on it,” he says. “Back then, [natural foods meant] sprout sandwiches. It was very intimate and adorable.”

But leading up to the turn of the century, Boulder’s food businesses were outgrowing that cuteness. Celestial Seasonings had been acquired by Kraft Inc. in 1984 for $40 million. White Wave’s sales grew from $6 million in 1993 to $29.6 million in 2000.

By the early 2000s, there was concern in Boulder that rising costs of living—spurred by a population increase along the Front Range—would deter entrepreneurs from starting companies there. “It [was] an expensive place to not only start a company but also to rent an office or a production facility, so it [was] tempting to leave town,” says Capsalis, who’s lived in Boulder since 1984 and was one of the founding members of Naturally Boulder. To combat this, he says the city manager in the early aughts granted one-time payments of $5,000 each to organizations in three industries—technology, outdoor recreation, and food and beverage—to bolster economic activity. For the food and beverage sector, that money allowed the formation of a trade association, and in 2005 Naturally Boulder was officially born as a 501(c)(6) business organization.

Today, Capsalis says the organization works with 300 brands and serves 1,100 members. Whether these business owners are located in Boulder or not, they can pay a $65 annual membership fee to access education and training materials, financial tools, trend reports, networking opportunities, and events, such as the pitch slam. Capsalis estimates that 65 percent of the companies he works with are early-stage startups doing less than $5 million annually in sales—a testament, he says, to the area’s incubating environment, which includes a pool of informed, passionate consumers eager to taste new products and provide feedback at places like Boulder-area farmers’ markets.

For Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s Nut Butter, farmers’ markets helped turn an idea born while waiting tables into a multimillion-dollar business. Sharing samples, Gold says, provides instant market data, while also introducing new products to high-net-worth residents who may later become investors. In fact, when Gold began seeking funding in 2005, “a lot of these people already knew me and knew the brand,” he says. “And they had the money to invest in things that they love.” In 2016, Hormel Foods acquired Justin’s for $286 million.

Gold considers himself part of the second generation of founders to have achieved success coming up through Boulder’s natural food scene. He and others followed the trail blazed by mentors such as Steve Demos at White Wave, whose company was purchased by Dallas-based Dean Foods in 2002 for $204 million. “Gen One had to make it all up—literally, they had to create [the industry],” Gold says. While he and his second-generation contemporaries saw a mostly cleared path laid out for them, today’s third generation has a veritable yellow brick road.

One of the rising stars treading that golden thoroughfare is Kristy Lewis, an East Coast transplant who started making bags of chemical-free microwave popcorn in 2010. At the time, she was living outside of Boston and found that every phone call she was making to learn more about creating a natural food business was dialing into Boulder. Lewis wanted to be immersed in that network, and in 2013, she and her family headed west. “All the signs were pointing to Boulder,” she says. “So we moved out here and haven’t looked back.” Today, her company, Quinn, crafts more than 20 all-natural snacks and secured $10 million in funding last summer, due in large part, she says, to the community’s supportive infrastructure. “Boulder has offered so much more than we ever expected,” she says.

The thing is, though, not everyone can make the move to Boulder. So, in 2019, Naturally Boulder started outsourcing its highly prized community-building model via the Naturally Network, a national membership organization based on the Boulder model that helps set up and support affiliate chapters such as Naturally Chicago and Naturally Bay Area. Much like how these organizations nurture their own local communities, the Naturally Network fosters a body of city-level chapters that rely on each other for advice.

Katrina Tolentino, executive director of three-year-old Naturally Austin, which has 600 members, says that before the chapter formed, the community was fragmented, with no formalized environment in which companies could interact. Naturally Boulder provided direction for conjuring up bylaws, member benefits, and events—guidance, she says, that united the ecosystem. When Naturally Austin hosted its first event, Tolentino says it was clear how much the organization was needed. “I think it was the first time that [we] really saw each other and the size of the community,” she says of the event. “It generated a tremendous amount of excitement and momentum.”

Since forming in 2019, the Naturally Network has grown to include more than 5,000 business members representing more than 20,000 entrepreneurs, employees, suppliers, service providers, and investors around the country, with plans to keep expanding. Affiliate chapters in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego are emulating the characteristics that make Boulder special, such as forming a tight-knit creative services industry, fostering relationships with engaged consumers, and cultivating mentorship opportunities. For Lewis, the difference between being a part of a community and trying to do things on her own was clear when she attended her first Naturally Boulder event. “I remember being like, Oh, my God, like, these are my people—everyone’s here,” Lewis says. “It’s nice to have that in your backyard.”

While many large cities have robust talent pools and ancillary services, Boulder’s well runs deep for a city of only 100,000 people. Boulder’s Gen Three, as Gold calls it, has all the connections it needs within a few miles from home—from legal professionals to graphic designers to web developers. Another major draw: funding. In 2021, Boulder startups (in the natural products space and beyond) saw $1.8 billion of venture capital flow into their community, ranking it 23rd in the nation for most capital investment among cities such as Houston, Atlanta, and Denver, which ranks 14th.

Boulder’s natural products community has even grown into a major statewide industry—another reason for cities to follow its example. A 2019 impact report found that the natural and organic food industry in Colorado contributes $2.1 billion to the state’s economy and supports more than 22,000 jobs across the state. While this only amounts to about 0.6 percent of Colorado’s gross domestic product today, the country’s natural and organic products industry is expected to grow roughly 45 percent by 2030.

At the pitch slam, Stewart took the stage to present his bubbly, canned Frescos drinks to the judges. After the five competing companies completed their three-minute presentations and answered questions in front of the audience, Stewart was declared the winner. “I knew before I even started selling canned Frescos that, if I did everything that I was planning to do and I wanted to do, I would be in that competition,” he says. “I didn’t think about winning, but I totally knew I could make it.”

Among Stewart’s spoils: $3,000 cash and a suite of in-kind business services valued at nearly $75,000, as well as an exhibitor’s booth and chance to pitch at the Natural Products Expo East 2022, which will take place this fall.

Since winning, Stewart has put his energy toward expansion. He’s pursuing investment, and Frescos is now available in restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores such as King Soopers. “I want to take Frescos coast to coast all over the country and, eventually, to Latin America,” he says. “I have big dreams for this.”

Through it all, Stewart says his success wouldn’t have happened without coming up through the natural products community in the city he calls home. “What I’ve always felt about Boulder,” he says, “is that, if I stayed here, I could have access to people and resources that could allow me to do almost anything I wanted to do, if I set my mind to it.”

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2022.
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.