“We should expect more from an ice-cream sandwich.” — Pete Bredemann, founder, PeteyBird Ice Cream Sandwiches

America’s food revolution rolls on in Boulder, Colorado, where natural products enthusiasts convened last to week to parse, among other things, the metaphysical state of ice cream snacks.

Of course, there were more tangible outcomes for the 25 natural food and product innovators competing at Naturally Boulder’s 12th annual Pitch Slam & Autumn Awards, such as coveted booth space at Expo West, business consulting and a higher profile that boosts the early-stage companies pitching to judges and enthusiastic supporters. As I wrote last year, the event has become a spectacular showcase of innovation and entrepreneurship — a window into a movement and industry that’s profoundly changed Colorado’s economy and for consumers nationwide, the way we develop product and food concepts and make and distribute what we eat.

As impressed as I was last year, the crop of companies pitching this year was even stronger in my view, with great products but equally, very capable entrepreneurs. The business acumen of this group was off the charts.

Naturally Boulder again demonstrated why it’s among the most influential and productive trade organizations in America. I hooked up after the event with Bill Capsalis, past board president and early mover in standing up NB, to assess what we witnessed at the 12th annual Pitch Slam.

  • The cross-section of companies was again eye-opening: desserts, pizza doughs, beverages, snacks, soups and broths, dips, and the winner, tooth powder! Capsalis: Innovation is alive and well in the natural products industry in Boulder. Where else could you see vegan sauces and soups being pitched along with toothpaste? The idea that Boulder is the epicenter of the natural products industry, or at least at the center of the food revolution, is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Along with this comes a much more sophisticated entrepreneur; they’re more prepared and savvy than ever.
  • Gluten-free is now a staple, and grain-free is a new trend, but soy-free arrives this year in a big-way. ‘Gluten-, grain-, and, soy-free’ was the common refrain. Soy’s out because of new health concerns, especially for women. The billion-dollar sale of WhiteWave, with the Silk brand at center, came to mind all afternoon. Capsalis: It was almost $1.5 billion! It’s not so much that soy is out, it’s that other products are hotter. Plant-based milks are surging — almond, cashew, and even flax are gaining in popularity. I think the reason the WhiteWave deal is so important is because it shows how multinational corporations are focused on the innovation in the industry now. That’s a big deal and it gives a lot of entrepreneurs encouragement to keep innovating in the food space.
  • Paleo’s refinement represents huge opportunity. I’ve been paleo-plus-beer (who can live without beer?) for about six months and it’s hard to replace dietary staples like bread and muffins. But relief for grain-free products has arrived in a big way with the growing popularity of alternative flours made with almonds, chickpeas, and the like. Innovation in non-dairy dips and spreads was also on display. Flavorful, cheesy-tasting, vegan-based spreads from The Honest Stand and Let Thy Food were a hit. Fats are also back — FatWorks — in keeping with the paleo push. Capsalis: My favorite part of the Paleo movement is how so many things fit under the category! As long as you leave out the grains, sugars, and dairy, it’s Paleo! Beyond Paleo what we see happening now is a return to healthy fats like ghee and tallow. The Fatworks people are onto a culinary trend I think. I’m vegan so it doesn’t interest me, but I’m all for using every part of the animal, so bring on the fat.

  • “Boy, am I tired of energy bars,” opined Matt Oscamou, co-founder of Frontier Snacks. I was surprised his company didn’t make the finals. Energy bars seem in a down cycle, the exception this year being Evo, makers of a hemp bar and a business that’s already booming (profiled in CompanyWeek). Capsalis: It’s true there are a lot of bars out there. I think consumers respond well to high-protein, low-calorie items they can grab and eat on the go. Now they’re demanding actual real food in those bars. The challenge seems to be at the retail level: What does the store do with all of them?
  • I’ve the made the case for three years that manufacturing innovation has been a critical ingredient to industry growth in Colorado, and the impact of Colorado’s network of co-packers was an understated theme. Manufacturing challenges were less a topic this year than last, testament to expanding infrastructure including a growing network of available commercial kitchens along the Front Range. Brands and products may have been the highlight, but manufacturing assets are the ingredient that truly sets this region apart. Capsalis: This is right on, Bart! Every food brand I know has to start making their products somewhere and they all need to scale. Excellent manufacturing facilities make this a reality in our state. Without these facilities and expertise, we would not have the innovation that we do. A while back, you profiled the company that connects open kitchens with food makers [Food Corridor], a fabulous concept that pushes Colorado even further. We have some of the finest co-packers in the country located in Colorado.
  • A powerful social mission continues to inform many of the contestants here — it’s in the DNA of this sector — manifest this year in Good Spread, a natural peanut butter made with honey. With so many natural peanut butters on the market today that require a mix with every serving, this product aims squarely at kid’s preference for a creamy, no-stir texture. The corporate mission is to alleviate child mortality with an “every jar feeds a child” credo. It’s a commendable effort to turn a passive consumer to an awake, involved consumer. Capsalis: While mission-based food brands are not new or unique, Good Spread has raised the bar by highlighting malnourished children — a commendable act. Lots of companies want to do good while doing well; we see a lot of examples of this. Evo has re-focused their company around saving family farms by encouraging the growth of organic hemp. It’s brilliant really and not a marketing gimmick — they have locked up 20 percent of the organic hemp production and are creating more products to sell more hemp. Sometimes things just come together in a magical way. These are two great examples of entrepreneurs following their hearts.

  • Finally, the winner was the entertaining Perry Louis Fowler, eponymous owner of Frau Fowler’s Tooth Powder, part of the Tough Love Organics basket of products. Debilitated by a massive infection from having her wisdom teeth removed, Fowler developed a compelling, all-natural powder that, along with Fowler’s eccentric personality, won over the judges and audience alike. Cool stuff. Capsalis: Boy, was I surprised by her win. Personal care products — along with health and beauty products — are going through a lot of transformation these days and it is about time. It’s like the last frontier for innovation. The NB pitch slam exemplifies the awesome desire for entrepreneurs of all types to just go for it. And I love that about the event.

Our coverage of Pitch Slam finalists also includes this week’s profile of LoveTheWild. Stay tuned as we work our way through this incredible list of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.