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BIGGEST LITTLE FOOD HUB

Northern Nevada emerges as a natural food and supplement industries hot spot.

WRITTEN BY BARBARA TWITCHELL

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ka-boom!

Have you heard it? Perhaps not.

After all, it’s the sound of a quiet explosion. Not the headline-grabbing KA-BOOM! we heard when Tesla, Panasonic, or Apple showed up. But this subtler industrial boom, marked by a major influx of natural food and supplement companies, is just as surely transforming our formerly unsung region into a major player in the national and global marketplace. It’s our Cinderella moment.

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Clockwise from top left, Wes King, owner/CEO of Tahoe Trail Bar;
Jeff Stites, chief operations officer of Mary’s Gone Crackers; Jorge Lotan, senior operations manager of Thrive Market;

and Angie Bastian, founder/president of Angie’s Artisan Treats/BoomChickaPop

Why Northern Nevada?

While it may come as a surprise to many, there’s a long list of reasons why Reno and its sister cities have become magnets for this surge of industrial growth. Location ranks at the top.

“Most companies move here because we are uniquely situated to serve as a hub for the 12 western states,” says Nancy McCormick, vice president of business retention, expansion, and workforce for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

Because of its central location, Northern Nevada companies have the ability to transport goods and services to these 12 western states within one to two days, according to McCormick. Add to that the major seaports just over the hill in Northern California, offering access to the Pacific Rim, South Asia, and the Gulf countries, allowing for excellent export potential. Also, its proximity to California, the world’s sixth-largest economy, according to the California Department of Finance, means easy access to a huge market as well as a major resource for raw supplies and ingredients.

Additionally, a strong distribution network already is in place; land is readily available; the cost of living is reasonable; and the state offers business-friendly regulations, incentives, and tax structure (no corporate income tax!) that result in a 35 to 45 percent reduction of a business’ operating costs.

Food companies also love it here because of what is lacking: humidity and insects.

“That’s important when you’re manufacturing food,” McCormick says. “Potential contamination of your product is less likely in a dry climate.”

With all these things going for it, perhaps the real question isn’t Why? but What took so long?

Leading the way

NOW Foods is an experienced trailblazer. For almost 50 years, it has set the standard for excellence and innovation in the health-food and supplement industry, achieving success long before health and nutrition products found wide popularity.

So it was only fitting that this industry giant, with yearly sales of almost $400 million, was one of the first to take a chance on this area, opening a distribution center in 2004, well ahead of the boom. That worked out so well that by 2013, NOW Foods had a new, 165,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing and distribution center in Sparks.

The international company, distributing throughout the U.S. and 60 countries, has a huge catalog of more than 1,400 products, including dietary supplements and health foods, as well as sports nutrition and natural beauty products. The company’s philosophy, according to CEO Jim Emme, is to offer the best quality product for the best possible price.

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A NOW Sparks facility employee works in the Softgel Accumulation Area,
placing softgels on drying trays to be placed in the drying tunnel. Photo courtesy of NOW Foods

The growing popularity of its products drives a robust business that keeps the Sparks plant humming. Today the factory runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, keeping 300 workers happily employed. And we do mean happy. This family-owned company has won many awards as a top employer, including being named one of the 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in the U.S. by the National Association for Business Resources, three years in a row.

Attracting NOW, one of the largest independent manufacturers of natural products in the U.S. health-food industry, early on represented a major coup for our area and was, no doubt, instrumental in bringing more food and nutrition companies to our doorstep.

“We’ve had three suppliers move here to be close to us,” Emme says. “We’ve also had competitors move here — four in the last five years.”

In fact, according to Emme, the Reno/Sparks/Carson corridor actually has evolved into a hub for manufacturers in the health-food and supplement industry. Leading an impressive list of companies, in addition to NOW, are: Aloha Medicinals in Carson City, the world’s largest producer of organic medicinal mushrooms; BI Nutraceuticals in the Reno area, the largest manufacturer of botanical ingredients in the country; Kirkman Group in Reno, a leading provider of dietary supplements to those with special needs; and The Nature’s Bounty Co. in Sparks, distributing vitamins, supplements, and health-food products worldwide.

The list goes on, and Emme predicts it will continue to grow.

“The outlook is extremely positive for companies in our industry who want to relocate here,” Emme says. “The sky’s the limit!”

Going crackers

Mary Waldner ponders the humongous, 420,000-square-foot building in Sparks, the new home to Mary’s Gone Crackers, and takes a deep breath.

“It’s insane!” she says. “When you think that I started in my kitchen making individual crackers by hand, and you look at that facility, it’s pretty shocking to me. But it’s pretty fun, too.”

Even more shocking is the fact that Waldner had absolutely no background in food production and no aspirations to be involved in the field, least of all to be the founder of the top-selling organic, gluten-free cracker company in the country. There’s a lot about her story that is best described by her as “serendipitous.”

Waldner had a long and successful practice as a psychotherapist, helping others to improve their lives. All the while, she struggled with lifelong digestive problems, pain, fatigue, and mild depression. In 1994, at the age of 43, Waldner was diagnosed with celiac disease. She eliminated gluten from her diet and was astounded at how her health improved. It changed her life, she says.

An avid home baker, Waldner set out to create a gluten-free cracker that she could take along to social events, so she would have something to munch on. After some experimenting, she created a cracker she really loved. To her surprise, so did everyone else in her social circle.

“I watched people just flip over them,” Waldner says. “I knew that this wasn’t just a normal response to a cracker. I realized people loved to eat them, whether they needed gluten-free or not.”

Five years later, she decided to look into manufacturing them. It took another five years to figure out how to do it. In 2004, she launched Mary’s Gone Crackers, certainly a fitting name for a company started by a psychotherapist turned cracker maker!

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Mary Waldner, founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers, moved her manufacturing hub to Sparks earlier this year.
Photo courtesy of Mary’s Gone Crackers

Fast forward to 2017, and Mary’s Gone Crackers is now a mega-corporation manufacturing wildly popular, organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, whole-grain, vegan, kosher crackers right here in Northern Nevada. The initial 200 employees have started to fill that gigantic building in Sparks. Considering the size and production capacity of that facility and the huge demand for its products — which now include seven different flavors of the original cracker plus a new Super Seed cracker — there’s little doubt that many more job opportunities will be forthcoming.

When asked what prompted the decision to move the company from its California location to Reno, Waldner cites all the reasons previously outlined. Another key factor, she says, is that Reno offers a much better employee pool.

Then she laughs and adds, “And the mountains don’t hurt, either!”

Happy trails

Not every company in the local food-production industry is a transplant. Tahoe Trail Bar, a gluten-free, all-vegan energy bar is as local as its name — and proud of it.

Wes King, owner and CEO, recalls that it was in 2006 when he first tasted the amazing bar, filled with big chunks of chocolate, peanut butter, cranberries, and raisins. At that time, it was handmade and sold in a South Lake Tahoe coffee shop that no longer exists, and it was a legendary favorite among local outdoor adventurers.

To King, himself an avid outdoor enthusiast, the Tahoe Trail Bar was more than a snack. It was the high-energy fuel that personified the high-energy Tahoe lifestyle. In 2010, he spent all that he had — money he earned working in ski and bike shops and doing odd jobs — to buy the small, fledgling Tahoe Trail Bar business. He acknowledges that, as a business novice at the time, it was a big risk, but as a passionate outdoor adventurer, he admits he is a natural risk-taker at heart.

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Wes King, owner and CEO of Tahoe Trail Bar, moved the company’s headquarters and manufacturing to Reno.
Photo courtesy of Tahoe Trail Bar

In the last seven years, he has moved the company headquarters and distribution center to Reno, for logistical reasons, and expanded operations. Tahoe Trail Bars, which now come in three flavors, are sold in more than 600 locations in Northern California and Northern Nevada and are available nationwide through Amazon. And it’s only the beginning, he says. For one, in early August, King received a $13,500 Whole Foods Market Small Producer grant to grow his business.

He credits much of his success to Summit VMS (Venture Mentoring Service), an EDAWN-sponsored program that pairs entrepreneurs with experienced mentors.

“Reno is an incredible city,” King says. “The business support network and entrepreneurial ecosystem here are second to none.”

Business is thriving

With the lofty goal of making access to healthy food and natural household products easy and affordable for every American family, regardless of income, Thrive Market, an online membership grocery service, entered a skeptical marketplace two and a half years ago.

Skeptics take note: In that time, the company has managed to enroll 600,000 members. It is one of the fastest growing e-commerce companies in Los Angeles’ history, if not the fastest, according to John Winkels, senior vice president of supply chain.

For an annual fee of $60, members can select from a catalog of 4,700 of the most popular natural and organic products in the world at 25 to 50 percent off retail price, making them cost comparable to less-healthy options. Available products — shelf-stable grocery, health, beauty, or cleaning commodities — are shipped directly to members’ homes. Orders for more than $49.95 ship free to the 48 continental states.

To ensure that even those with limited resources have access to these products, Thrive has a social mission built into its business model. For every paid membership on the site, Thrive sponsors a free membership for a member of the military, a first-responder, a teacher, or a low-income individual who cannot afford the membership.

How does it do all this?

“We use wholesalers and also buy directly from many of our most important brands,” Winkels says. “We’re able to get competitive prices because of our volume. Then we also have to run a very efficient online business.”

That’s where Reno enters the scene. Although Thrive’s headquarters remains in California, a little more than a year ago, company leaders decided to move the distribution center from L.A. to a sprawling 300,000-square-foot facility at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center off I-80 in Patrick, east of Reno, which offered many amenities that allowed the company to streamline its delivery process. The facility has 100 workers at present.

Winkels cites Reno’s centralized geographic location as the primary motivator but says there was another important factor.

“It’s an e-commerce hub,” he says. “There are many e-commerce companies that have distribution centers here, so it’s a community that has a lot of experience doing it.”

Winkels adds that one of the best aspects the Thrive team has enjoyed about their new location is the partnership they have developed with their neighbor, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada.

“We donate quite a bit of food to them, and our folks do volunteer work for them as well,” Winkels says.

Now that’s really delivering the goods.

Boomchicka … what?

The year was 2001. All Angie Bastian and her husband, Dan, set out to do was start a little college fund for their children, ages 3 and 5 at the time. Just something fun and low key that they could do as a family. Something that wouldn’t interfere with their real jobs — Angie was a nurse, Dan a high school history teacher and baseball coach.

Popping a little kettle corn in their Minnesota garage would be a fun way to earn a few dollars and teach the children about the value of work, they decided. So, pop they did — in the garage, on street corners, at neighborhood festivals, at farmers’ markets, and in front of grocery stores. Anywhere they could. And people, literally, ate it up.

Sixteen years later, much to their surprise, they find themselves at the helm of a popcorn empire.

“We still pinch ourselves and say, ‘What? How did this happen?’” says Bastian, co-founder, president, and the proud namesake of Angie’s Artisan Treats brand, manufacturer of BoomChickaPop popcorn products.

She admits that it involved a lot of hard work, plenty of risk, and a few crazy chances — such as when they decided to leave a batch of their kettle corn at the Minnesota Vikings training camp for the players to enjoy. The next day they got a call asking them if they’d like to be the official kettle corn of the team. Heck yeah!

“That gave us the opportunity to pop in front of their stadium every home game,” Bastian says. “It’s winter in Minnesota! So we’re popping in our snowmobile suits, in blizzards! And we did that for years!”

Crazy as it sounds, it was worth it, she adds. That exposure was the turning point for their little kettle corn business.

Today, the company offers an extensive line of popcorn products made with real, wholesome ingredients that are whole grain, gluten free, non-GMO, vegan, and kosher, with no artificial ingredients or high-fructose corn syrup. The products are distributed both nationally and internationally.

In 2016, Bastian was looking to add a western location to their booming company.

“We ship popcorn, which is like shipping air,” she says. “We really wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and to continue to create a product that was as fresh as possible and made close to its distribution point.”

After locating an existing building that could be repurposed for their operation — as the saying goes, the greenest building is the one already standing — the couple made Reno their top choice.

Earlier this year, Angie’s Artisan Treats/BoomChickaPop’s South Meadows facility opened and began running three shifts, 24 hours a day, five days a week. Currently, it employs 80 people, but Bastian says they anticipate doubling that number over the next few years. And, she reports, they are thrilled to be in Reno.

“The altitude made a difference,” Bastian says. “We had to understand making popcorn at 5,000 feet versus making popcorn at close to sea level. Now that that’s resolved, it’s all good.”

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Angie Bastian, co-founder and president of Angie’s Artisan Treats/BoomChickaPop, chose Reno for the company’s Western location

And the beat goes on

“I will tell you, Reno’s a booming place!” Bastian adds from her Minnesota office. “There’s a lot of manufacturing coming in there.”

Right she is. And it includes the whole area. From French Gourmet, manufacturer of pre-proofed, artisanal dough products that moved its entire international business from Hawaii to Sparks; to Nature’s Bakery, a local Carson City business that has expanded its humble roots to become a multinational operation with 500 employees; to Starbucks, with a manufacturing and distribution facility in Minden, which recently announced the planned expansion of its distribution center that’s expected to bring 100 new jobs and raise its local distribution workforce to almost 350 … well, you get the idea.

There are many more natural food, beverage, and nutrition companies that have settled or expanded in our area than we are able to highlight here. And there’s no sign the influx will stop anytime soon.

So, brace yourself … KA-BOOM!

Writer Barbara Twitchell has lived in the Reno area for more than three decades. Seeing her hometown through the eyes of these industrial visionaries made her aware of the many valuable assets this region has to offer and the bright future that lies in store for it.

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