Co-founder and co-owner Julio Torres’ fledgling brand of artisanal oat milk and frozen desserts has some growing to do — but the food scientist turned entrepreneur is up to the task.
Torres used to get up each morning and enjoy pouring himself a glass of milk, before heading off to his present job as a food scientist — that is, until he became lactose-intolerant and realized his favorite daybreak beverage was causing him stomach distress. What could take the place of that “fresh sensation” of cold dairy he craved?
“Now, I get the same sensation when drinking our oat milk,” he says.
As a result of his lactose intolerance, Torres began brewing his own oat milk — much like he started homebrewing his own beer, after moving from Mexico about 10 years ago to take a position at Dawn Food Products in Denver. (Torres has co-authored a patent with his colleagues at the company for “Bloom-resistant Barrier Food Packaging.”)
Given that he’s a fan of cream ale, as well as creamy Kentucky common beer, he managed to find a similar creamy mouthfeel within oat milk. “It’s creamy because of the process, the oats we use,” Torres says. And, indeed, he likens making oat milk to brewing beer: “We can make this oat milk in any brewery, because the process is very similar.”
After friends were complimentary about his first batches of oat milk, it hatched an idea for a business.
“I have an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Torres. However, he had no experience as a businessman. Torres says, “That part was the most difficult — to understand the process to start a business here in Colorado.” Ultimately, he received helpful input from the Massachusetts-based non-profit EforAll.
Torres launched Smile Foods with his co-owner and collaborator Manuel Rios, who also handles operations and sales, and launched the company in October 2020. At first, the two sold their oat milk in bulk to Nude Foods Market in Boulder, which would transfer it to jars before selling it. Now the company has its own packaging, as well as additional accounts — such as Nooch Vegan Market in Denver. Their oat milk was also included this year in the Shoots Showcase boxes available through Naturally Boulder.
Torres and Rios are making their own oat milk commercially at Commissary 5280 in Denver. The company expanded its line of products in 2021 to include four flavors of ice cream-like frozen desserts (lemon, peanut butter, chocolate, and vanilla).
The oat milk receives positive feedback at farmers’ markets, says Torres. “They just love our products — and they buy, right away, the milk.” The most cherished responses? “Oh, this is better than Oatly!” — referring to the powerhouse Swedish brand, which has been available in the United States since 2016.
Torres first tried oat milk in the Netherlands in the mid-2000s, while earning his postgraduate degree in food technology. Prior to that, he studied food science in Mexico City, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, as well as his hometown of Monterrey, where he received his master’s.
Compared with other oat milks on the market, Torres says Smile Foods only uses four ingredients. And there are “no preservatives, no fat, no oil, no sugar, no gums.” Unfortunately, one thing the oat milk doesn’t have is a long shelf life. It’s only two weeks compared with other brands which might be good for several months. While the company pasteurizes each batch of milk, they don’t have the crucial equipment just yet to do ultra-high-temperature pasteurization, which would extend the shelf life.
Still, there are reasons to smile for Torres. First, there’s conceiving a product — and then bringing it to life. And it’s also seeing “people’s faces [when] they like your products: ‘Oh, this is so good!'”
Challenges: “Right now, it’s to increase the shelf life of the milk,” says Torres. “We’re working really hard on that, because our shelf life compared to others is short.”
Opportunities: Once the company has increased the shelf-life of its oat milk, it will be doors opening at larger food chains. And, through the use of a homogenizer machine and the addition of a seed oil, the company is also developing a “barista version” of its oat milk, which will produce the requisite froth upon being steamed.
Needs: “We would like to have our own space,” says Torres, while also noting that, “Here in Denver, everything is expensive nowadays.”