Doing what comes naturally at Naturally Boulder Days

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On day two of Naturally Boulder Days 2008, the city’s fourth annual celebration of the $62 billlion natural-foods business, we put down the bread, ate all the chocolate and began with the real substance. Chef Ann Cooper offered the keynote, speaking about her passionate attempts to change the way children eat. She calls herself a “renegade lunch lady,” and creates revolutionary lunch menus for school districts. She’s currently reviewing the Boulder Valley School District’s lunch options, and her speech was followed by a Q&A with Cooper, Boulder Valley School District CFO Leslie Stafford and BVSD Superintendent Chris King.

The next session was a panel featuring the founders of Alfalfa’s Market, on the 25th anniversary of the opening of the ground-breaking market (which was bought out by Wild Oats, which was subsequently bought out by Whole Foods). Hass Hassan, Lyle Davis and Mark Retzloff were not just contributors to the health-food movement, but primary movers behind it. Although they’ve gone their separate ways, they’re all still deeply involved in the health and organic food business.

Two lengthly breakout sessions followed, with industry vets bringing their experience to the table. This was the meat and potatoes of the conference, a time for starter companies to learn what it takes to break into the competitive industry.

The closing keynote was a fascinating dialogue between Richard Foy and Todd Woloson, moderated by Bill Capsalis. Foy is a legend in Boulder, having helped design the Downtown Boulder Mall, which earned him a national award; he also created the Boulder Farmer’s Market before every city had to have one. Woloson has had a long career as a venture capitalist, but his claim to fame in the health-food industry is the founding of IZZE Beverage Co. in 2002. Both agreed Boulder is one of the primary hubs for natural food innovation, and has a bright outlook for growing the business.

The highlight of the day, though, was the Pitch Slam, essentially an American Idol for small, natural food businesses. The room filled, the booze flowed and the line formed as moderator Sylvia Tawse loosely explained the rules: People had sixty seconds to pitch their products to judges (Hassan, Woloson, Liz Myslik of the Zam Group and Buddy Ketchner of Sterling Rice Group), then got their feedback before a thumbs up or down vote. Yes, there was a gong – and people whose products weren’t natural or organic get a big gong, then were shunned off the stage.

The pitches heard here could well be harbingers of future trends. Look for many gluten-free products, more natural health-care products (even one that makes your breasts perkier!) and nutrient-dense snack bars. The winner of the slam, which won a plethora of prizes focused on growing its product, was Sticky Fingers Cooking, a company owned by Angie Mielke, Christine Mackstaller and Samantha Sturhahn that offers classes that teach children healthy food techniques (parents welcome, too). “We’re excited! “Mielke said. “We’ve been working on this idea for two years and with this feedback...we’re just shocked.” As Mackstaller explained it, their mission is to “empower families to eat well. We cultivate culinary curiosities in kids!”

Just as Naturally Boulder continues to cultivate adult interest in the greening of the food industry. -- Tyler Nemkov

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