October 7, 2010

Naturally Boulder Awards: a First-Timer’s Take. ~ Marissa Faye

White Girl Salsa wins the Pitch Slam—and Critics second-guess.

Last Thursday, an attractive entrepreneur with a cowboy hat, a knack for marketing and flavor, and a disarming smile won over $20,000 in natural products industry services.

It was my first time attending Naturally Boulder Awards—a natural products industry party and dinner—and I didn’t quite know what to expect. And I don’t know why, but I was nervous. Nervous to be at the pivotal event that establishes Boulder as the epicenter of the booming natural foods industry.

Waylon and I biked there from “Hotelephant,” elephant’s eco-renovated HQ and Waylon’s home.

We arrived on the grand plaza outside the UMC—the student union. Hundreds of people were dressed nicely, sipping cocktails, and mingling with old friends and new ones alike. Waylon and I squeezed ourselves through the crowd, chit chatting with the heads of Rudi’s Bakery, Celestial Seasonings, Evol Burritos, Earth Balance, Silk Soy and other big-name natural food companies. My laugh was loud and shaky and I really doubt it was any surprise to anyone that I had no idea what I was doing, but they didn’t seem to mind. Waylon was focused on meeting and greeting, laughing, making jokes…but there was a lot of business going on, it seemed like. A lot of business cards getting exchanged. Our fellow colleague Alex Hanifin was there, too, hanging out with her friends at a young gluten-free bakery. Every step you took, there was someone new to meet and greet and get your schmooze on with.

We enjoyed a few drinks, a few snacks, and then it was time to go inside.

We continued with our mingling through dinner. Waylon was gone for most of dinner, talking with friends and colleagues. Alex and I enjoyed a sample of some of the most amazing organic granola I had ever had the pleasure of stuffing into my mouth.

Then the room went silent.

Time for the Pitch Slam—when new natural products companies are given advice and criticism by panel of green titans. It’s kind of famous—grueling, scary, inspiring all at once. It was the reason I had been so eager to come!

The pitch-slam finalists approached the stage one-by-one. A nervous girl explained the importance of re-using glass bottles, turning them into vases. Beautiful, hip, elegant and very green, these vases were the centerpieces of every dinner table across the fluorescent-lite Glenn Miller Ballroom.

A man displayed a live example of the results of his paper cards embedded with flower seeds, and so on. And, with each contestant, it all fun and interesting until the judges had their say. Then it got a little scary.

The panel of judges included Mo Siegel of Capital Peaks (founder of Celestial Seasonings, he’s a Boulder legend), Blake Waltrip of Celestial Seasonings, Bret Fund of the University of Colorado, Alex Cioth of Fresca Foods and Tom Spier of Spier Consumer Capital/Evol Burritos/Revelry. All men.

I found it intriguing…were there no women who had created successful organic businesses?

Some of the judges I had met earlier and were friendly fellows, but my God were they rough and tough, particularly Mo, who had some offhandedly critical comments. They poked and prodded with remarks and questions that would have left me stuttering for words, any words. And as they skilfully delved into monetary issues, business locations, and future expectations, I found myself idolizing the contestants.  Not only had they slammed their pitch, their unique and personal pitch to be judged by an auditorium of 250 attendees and several hardcore judges, but they had the wits to keep up with it. They were so courageous! So adamant!

It continued as such, superheroes of new generation battling to keep their wits against the conquerors of the last.  When it was over, every attendee wrote down their vote on a small piece of paper.

My vote, and Alex’s, was quick and easy: Two Degrees. A young company pitched by a charming young dude with the intention of selling natural food bars. At first, when I heard his pitch, I was turned off. How many more freakin’ natural food bars could your local grocer sell? But there was a wonderful catch: for every bar that’s bought, a packet of medically nutritious food will be given to a starving child somewhere around the world. I was hooked, I tell you. Hooked. And there was no chance of being freed.

We waited for the results and more awards were announced.

Bhakti Chai— Best Young Business
Rudi’s Organic Bakery— Company of the Year
Ramona Clark, of Growing Gardens— Local Hero

Then, the most prestigious of awards…The Lifetime Achievement Award. Steve Demos, founder of White Wave Inc. and NextFoods, was a trip and a half.  I laughed and laughed so hard, surprised by how hysterical this man was.  He was a good man, worthy of his award, and the audience could feel it.  He ended his speech and received not one but two standing ovations, smiles perched on all faces.

The moment had come. The winner of the pitch-slam was announced.  The winner who would receive the means to turn their small company into something real, something significant.

White Girl Salsa.

An attractive woman approached the stage, that disarming smile of hers beaming below a cowboy hat, and I felt betrayed. By whom?  The voters, I guess.  Didn’t they understand the beauty and selflessness of Two Degrees and what they were trying to do for this planet?  The good that they would provide to millions of children?  So many people had whispered over to me or announced how epic White Girl Salsa tasted. I really didn’t give a damn.

Apparently, some felt just as betrayed as I had. More than some. Why did White Girl Salsa win?

Her product is hip, apparently very, very tasty, and fun. And the founder is sweet, a magnetizing pitchwoman. But, White Girl Salsa is not organic but natural, a technically meaningless term.  It is co-packed, meaning that she no longer makes her own product, but has others do it for her.  And, it is eight bucks a jar!  This makes it the most expensive salsa on the shelves of Whole Foods, though it’s not even organic.

Yes, she’s got three kick-ass salsa flavors and an eye-catching logo, but this White Girl Salsa seems to be more of a marketing home run than a beneficial addition to the Naturally Boulder community. That said, I was probably just a little bit attached to my pick—and that’s the magic of the pitch slam. You get caught up in the movement. And I’m sure White Girl Salsa will add an organic line or option when they can—and then I’ll find the eight bucks worth it (even if I still can’t afford it, personally).

All in all, it was a fun night. The food, ironically, wasn’t that great. The lighting in the Glenn Miller hall is pretty cold, and bright. But the people were amazing. The combination of capitalistic fervor and earthy idealism is exciting, and too rare.

Go Naturally Boulder, thanks for helping us take the world by storm!

~ Marissa Faye

You can watch highlights from Naturally Boulders’ pitch slam below:

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