Company turns second market products into natural foods
A former fruit farmer from Cortez is working to cash in on the $32 billion organic food industry by launching a snack food manufacturing plant in Grand Junction.
With locally grown food trending among consumers, Bill Manning had an idea and saw an opportunity. The founder of 6,350’ Natural Foods, 572 Commercial Drive, Manning grew peaches in southwestern Colorado for eight years before two successive early frosts killed the business.
Under the circumstances, some might have quit agriculture for less risky pursuits. But not Manning.
“It boils down to grit,” he said.
Bloodied but unbowed, the farmer saw an opportunity in second market fruit products — fruit that is tasty but slightly blemished or too small for the primary market. Much of it goes to waste, Manning said. Peach Street Distillers in Palisade is another business that successfully uses this secondary market for under-utilized local fruit.
Seeking a more sustainable approach for local, small-scale, organic fruit growers, Manning said he started by researching 1,000-year-old recipes for dried fruit that originated in ancient Persia.
With a few modern-day modifications, Manning found a way to re-create the flavors in a way that satisfies most every palate. The result is six fruit snack varieties — apple, peach, cherry, apricot, raspberry and strawberry-rhubarb.
Recipes in place, Manning next sought collaborators who could help him establish a large-scale food-making plant.
“Networking and collaboration are so important,” Manning said. “I needed to find people who could help me do the things I didn’t know how to do.”
There are many delicious, organic foods products distributed locally, but most will never make it to mass production without the right collaborators, he said.
Through connections at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Manning was able to meet a retired Nabisco executive who took a liking to the entrepreneur and started advising him on how to go about launching a food manufacturing business.
“He spent hours and hours with me. He became my first investor,” Manning said.
The Nabisco connection led to a meeting with Kurt Luttecke, who eventually signed on as Manning’s CEO. Luttecke is a senior vice president at United Natural Foods, the leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods in the United States.
With the right investors and executive team in place, Manning found a location, first in Durango, then in Grand Junction, and assembled a team of managers and workers to make the food. All came highly recommended, he said.
Strategically, Grand Junction was a good fit because it was closer to the fruit growers Manning needed.
“It’s well positioned on a transportation corridor. It had the right kind of commercial space and amenities. We could find what we needed here, across a number of spectrums,” he said.
Manning and crew started moving into the production building in November but did not start operations at full capacity until last month, he said.
Production supervisor Daniel Giner said Manning pays a living wage and has created a friendly, productive workplace environment that stresses teamwork.
“It’s a great place to be,” Giner said.
The manufacturer, which employs four people so far, is hosting an open house celebration for investors, growers and other company stakeholders from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Grand Junction plant.
Luttecke said he is expecting about 100 company stakeholders, media and key community members for the event.
“We’re excited to celebrate our Colorado roots by opening the grounds to friends and family of the company,” he said.
Luttecke said he chose Earth Day to host the event for the local small business to highlight the company’s commitment to natural and organic products and to agricultural sustainability.
The company sources natural and organic produce from independent farms all over the Western Slope and Utah.
Manning said he is proud to be able to contribute to the local community and economy by keeping the sourcing, production and, ultimately, jobs in Grand Junction.
“It means a lot to help make the economics of small-scale natural and organic farming just a little bit easier for some of our neighbors here on the Colorado Plateau. And we offer a really great product in the process,” he said.
The snacks are made from natural, organic whole fruit that is grown in the high desert of Colorado’s Plateau. They are gluten-free and have no artificial flavors or colors, no preservatives, and no high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils, Manning said.
“They’re a great source of antioxidants, calcium, iron and vitamins C and A,” he said.
The enterprise’s numeric moniker is the mean elevation of the Colorado Plateau, a geologic formation that extends across western Colorado and eastern Utah. Some of the fruit Manning uses comes from eastern Utah, he said.
Currently, the distributor of the snacks nearest Grand Junction is at Homestead Market, 101 Grand Ave., in Paonia.
“We’re doing networking, talking to outdoor sporting good places and natural food markets like Sprouts. You’ll be seeing us in Grand Junction soon,” Manning said.
The snacks have numerous outlets across Colorado and one in Los Angeles. Go to 6350naturalfoods.com/where-to-buy/ for a list of all retail locations.