Naturally Chicago: Taking Good Food and Natural Products to the Next Level
By Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Naturally Chicago is a brand-new initiative intended to connect and grow our region’s thriving Good Food and Natural Products community. This collaboration between FamilyFarmed and the region’s leading natural products companies creates a platform to galvanize the region’s Good Food and Natural Products sectors.
Naturally Chicago’s goal is to accelerate innovation by providing leaders and advocates with opportunities to learn, share and conceive ideas that will enable Chicago to surge ahead at the forefront of the food industry.
“We believe that Naturally Chicago will deliver the same kind of networking, learning experiences, thought leadership and relationship building opportunities year-round that we have packed into our Good Food EXPO over the past 15 years,” said Jim Slama, FamilyFarmed’s founder and CEO. Naturally Chicago will function as a program of FamilyFarmed.
Slama is joined by an all-star CEO team of Chicago Good Food pioneers as co-founders of Naturally Chicago: Brandon Barnholt of KeHE Distributors, Tony Olson of SPINS and Bill Weiland of Presence Marketing. In addition, dozens of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and influencers already have joined the Naturally Chicago Board of Directors.
Naturally Chicago promotes Chicago’s role as an international center for Good Food and Natural Products. An affiliate of the Naturally Network — based in Boulder, Colorado — Naturally Chicago is modeled after Naturally Boulder, which has been instrumental in establishing Colorado as a leading hub in the natural and organic products industry.
In addition to Chicago and Boulder, the Naturally Network also has affiliates in the San Francisco Bay and North Bay areas, and Austin, Texas.
One element of Naturally Chicago’s vision is organizing events that bring together influencers from across the Good Food and Natural Products spectrum. Beginning May 3, Naturally Chicago Networking Breakfasts —hosted by Spiral Sun Ventures — will be held every Friday at LYFE Kitchen in the city’s River North neighborhood.
The first Quarterly Keynote event, on May 23, features an address by longtime Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb (photo below) and a panel of some of the region’s most inspiring Good Food startups — and will be held at the BMO Harris Auditorium in Chicago’s Loop. The keynote event also includes a reception with beer, wine and Good Food.
Also mark June 6 on your calendar for the kickoff of Naturally Chicago’s Monthly Morning Mingles at SPINS offices in River North. The inaugural event features Michelle Lorge, vice president of marketing for Simple Mills, a producer of “nutrient dense and allergen free” cookies, crackers and baking mixes and one of the biggest entrepreneurial success stories in the city’s Good Food sector.
Founding Naturally Chicago members will pay only $65 for the first year, because, in Slama’s words, “We want to ensure that the program is engaging and energizing from the start. The players in the Good Food and Natural Products industries already intersect in many ways, but we’ve lacked a platform that brings it all together. We view Naturally Chicago as the Town Hall for the Good Food and Natural Products communities.”
The ticket price for the May 23 Quarterly Keynote by Walter Robb is $60, but Naturally Chicago is offering a $100 bundle that includes a one-year membership and a ticket to the Keynote event.
A Word from Our Founders
Naturally Chicago was first unveiled as a new part of the Naturally Network in early March at Natural Products Expo West, produced by the New Hope Network, in Anaheim, California. The official Chicago launch took place on March 22 during the Opening Symposium at FamilyFarmed’s 15th Anniversary Good Food EXPO.
A panel on the new program included representatives of the co-founders, including Carlotta Mast, market lead and senior vice president of content and insight for New Hope Network, which produces the Natural Products EXPOs. She was joined by Brandon Barnholt, CEO of KeHE Distributors and a co-founder of Naturally Chicago; Presence Marketing Vice President Milton Zimmerman; and Anu Goel, SPINS’ president of client growth solutions, plus Naturally Chicago Board member Alison Velazquez, founder and CEO of Skinny Souping and a graduate of the Good Food Accelerator.
Mast was the longtime Board president of Naturally Boulder, which was founded in 2005 and is the cornerstone of the Naturally Network. Naturally Boulder is a model for Naturally Chicago.
“It’s been about connecting the people in the Natural Products industry, the Good Food movement. And what this has created is this vibrant ecosystem for entrepreneurs and others in the Good Food movement to all come together,” Mast said.
She continued, “I think what has made Naturally Boulder successful and I think what makes FamilyFarmed successful is not just connecting people, but connecting people through the spirit of generous sharing. We do a lot of education events, networking events, we have forums and other platforms that allow one another to help each other.”
KeHE, a $5 billion distributor and natural food industry leader based in Naperville, Illinois, has built its business helping new and emerging brands launch and scale up. CEO Barnholt notes that KeHE distributes organic and other natural products “to most of the food retailers in the United States and Canada,” adding, “What brands get from KeHE is access to markets and expertise to make the most of it.”
As stated on Naturally Chicago’s website, “Production of food and other consumer products has been in Chicago’s DNA since its earliest days.” This was not an unalloyed blessing: “Our city played a major role in the industrialization of U.S. food and consumer products during the 19th and 20th centuries.” But in our era, “Chicago has become a magnet for people pushing for a more decentralized system, based on food and other natural products produced as locally as possible, using regenerative, humane and fair practices that are better for people, better for the planet and better for animals.”
Barnholt reflected on this saying, “We know that Chicago was literally founded in the food business, we know that Chicago has always been involved in innovating food, and we know Chicago will continue to be a center for food innovation and diversity in the U.S. and beyond.”
Goel represented SPINS — the leading provider of retail consumer insights, analytics reporting and consulting services for the Natural, Organic and Specialty Products industry. “We’re excited to bring the Monthly Morning Mingles, an education series, to our offices starting in June,” Goel said. “This is going to be an opportunity for us to share best practices with one another, talk about our successes and challenges, help each other, learn from each other.”
Presence Marketing, based in suburban South Barrington, is the nation’s leading Natural Products broker, with more than 500 employees across the country; Bill Weiland, its CEO, has been called a kingmaker in the industry by Forbes. Milt Zimmerman, vice president and partner at Presence, participated in the Naturally Chicago event at the EXPO and noted, “Growing up in this industry, we’re so proud of the way that Chicago has evolved into a great marketplace.”
Slama then introduced Velazquez as the kind of emerging entrepreneur that Naturally Chicago is designed to help. Velazquez described her product as a line of healthy, drinkable soups that can be eaten hot or cold by people with active lifestyles. She said, “What Naturally Chicago is providing is that community of support and that network that is going to be ongoing support. Being an entrepreneur can be isolating and overwhelming, and to have that ongoing support is crucial… From the programming they are going to be offering, to the ability to interact with other industry experts and the chance to connect with other entrepreneurs, it is really valuable for a business at my stage.”
We invite you to get as inspired by the potential impact of Naturally Chicago as we are, by attending one of the Friday Networking Breakfasts or our inaugural Keynote event, and we’re confident you will quickly recognize the value of this new program. Already sold? Become a founding member or sponsor.
We want to make the world a better place through better food and natural products… We can’t do it without you! Please visit the Naturally Chicago website to become a member, become a sponsor, learn more about our events, buy tickets for the May 23 Quarterly Keynote with Walter Robb, and sign up for our bi-weekly Naturally Chicago Newsletter.