Denver, Colorado

Natural Food Works’ CEO John McHugh sees opportunity partnering with retailers to provide stores precisely with the food products they need.

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Photos Jonathan Castner

When CompanyWeek first profiled Natural Food Works in 2015, the business provided contract manufacturing for assorted clients. But a whirlwind transformation occurred when the company was purchased in 2020 by private-equity firm Samantha Brands Group.

Today, Natural Food Works manufactures fruit rolls and veggie strips for Wildmade Snacks — the brand founded by McHugh back in 2011 (under the company name Naked Edge Snacks). And it continues to produce El Salvadoran-style pupusas for Tres Latin Foods. Both Wildmade and Tres Latin Foods — both companies within Samantha’s brand portfolio — now operate under the aegis of Natural Food Works, whose day-to-day operations are overseen by McHugh himself.

Recently, Wildmade released organic smoothie pods — frozen portions of fruit and vegetable purees (like an ice cube) which can be conveniently popped into a blender along with whatever other ingredients a customer chooses. Flavors include “Strawberry Apple Beet + Chia and Mango Apple Pumpkin + Hemp Hearts. “It’s kind of a unique packaging,” says McHugh. “It almost looks like a blister pack.”

McHugh calls the smoothie pods a “collaboration” between Natural Food Works and Sprouts Market — and it’s emblematic of the relationships McHugh’s company seeks to build. McHugh says the product resulted from “sitting down with [Sprouts’] buyer and understanding what need they needed filled on their frozen side.”

While Natural Food Works does contract manufacturing for about a half dozen outside concerns, McHugh says the company is primarily focused now on growing its own brands, in addition to offering product development for retail stores. McHugh says, “When we go in and talk with Whole Foods or Sprouts or any of the retailers we work with, our biggest question is, ‘What do you need that no one else is giving you?’ And our goal is really to be a partner.”

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McHugh elaborates, “We can either launch a new item under our own brands that fits that need. We can launch it under their private label brands, if they have one and it’s a fit for them. Or, if we need to, we can even spin up a new brand and launch it under the new brand.” Six weeks is all it takes to get a product from conception to the shelves.

That’s all possible because of Natural Food Works’ existing capabilities, McHugh says, which allows it to produce “frozen appetizers, dehydrated snacks, gluten-free baked goods, including granola and crackers, and things like that. Filling pouches — so anything you see in a stand-up pouch that’s just kind of loose, we can fill those. Popcorn. And extruded bars.”

All that manufacturing takes place within one of six work bays inside Natural Food Works’ 30,000-square-foot facility in Denver. There’s a dehydrator “the size of a semi-trailer” in which Wildmade’s fruit rolls and veggie strips are made. McHugh says, “Essentially, we start with fruit and vegetable purees; they come in 50-gallon barrels. We pump those into big stainless steel tanks and mix them to get to the specific flavor we’re looking for. And from there it goes into the dehydrator and comes out in flat sheets that then get cut to size and then packaged.” Flavors of the Veggie-Go Strips include Berry, Apple + Spinach, Mango, Apple + Pumpkin, and Beet, Apple and Cinnamon.

And, assisting in the creation of Tres Latin Foods’ pupusas (which are made using organic corn masa), there’s a rheon machine, which “takes dough in one side, a filling on the other side, and it give you these neat little balls of stuffed dough that then get flattened baked and then frozen.” Pupusa flavors include Chicken and Cheese, Spinach and Cheese, and Kale and Pinto Bean. And if a typical serving is too large for a customer — or if they want to provide pupusa appetizers for a party — there are Mini Pupusas available, too.

Natural Food Works’ site is SQF Level 2-certified, McHugh adds. “We hold just about any certificate that anybody needs whether that’s organic or gluten-free or kosher. It’s highly customizable, which is why we’re able to spin up new products so quickly and commercialize them so quickly.”

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In terms of sales, “We’ve grown from 2020 to 2021 by an order of magnitude of about 45 percent,” McHugh says. “Our focus right now is really growing our brands, looking for new brand acquisitions, as well as launching new products to maximize our assets.”

Challenges: McHugh says it’s staffing: “We’ve got a great core staff, but finding new manufacturing employees is definitely getting more and more challenging. “

Opportunities: “I think our unique ability to bring products to market very quickly” is the greatest opportunity for the company, says McHugh. “And to partner with our retailers and bring to market the exact item they’re looking for.”

Needs: “Given how COVID has caused major disruptions, McHugh says there’s the need to get back to business “in a semi-normalized way.”

At the height of the pandemic, sales for on-the-go snack foods like Wildmade’s fruit rolls and veggie strips were down, but sales of Tres Latin Foods’ pupusas were up. “With COVID, frozen sales went through the roof,” says McHugh. “So we’re able to offset some of our losses with one brand with the other.”