In an immaculately clean room, in the middle of an industrial park in Louisville, hair-netted workers hand-pack spinach lasagna into containers to be flash frozen, packaged and sent to Costco.
A couple of rooms away, super-thin aromatic crackers, still warm from baking, move down a conveyor belt to be packaged. These are the addictively cripsy 34 Crispbread. In the facility's peanut room, Justin's Nut Butters will be blended and squeezed into packets later in the week. And down the way, giant globs of dough are being mixed and kneaded, to be divided into smaller balls, flash-frozen and shipped to Macaroni Grills nationwide. Later, pizza dough for Wolfgang Puck's pizza line will be made in the same spot.
This is Fresca Foods, a company that got its start as Pasta Fresca in the late 1980s with a storefront in Boulder that supplied high-end pastas to area restaurants. Today's iteration is a result of both the tech and natural foods revolutions in Boulder. While the natural foods connection is relatively clear -- all products are made without artificial ingredients and many are organic -- the tech aspect has to do with the company's officers, who bought into the business about five years ago. Todd Dutkin, president and CEO, and Alex Cloth, executive vice president, most recently were executives at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield before their foray into the world of dough and nuts.
"I come from high tech," Dutkin says. "My only background is I like to eat."
The precision of the tech world has a definite place, however, when it comes to scaling up recipes and achieving production efficiencies. Yet, the firm is something of an incubator for up and coming natural foods companies, a process that Dutkin says is both art and science.
Their focus group is typically the families of executives, and Dutkin is clearly delighted by the work, although he jokes that in the first years, it was a non-profit business, but not by design.
He likes being able to take the product home and show it to his children.
"After doing high tech for 10 or 15 years, the family can not relate to what I do," he says.
Fresca is able to help an entrepreneur with manufacturing and packaging. The label's nutrition information, the ingredients list and directions, for example, must adhere to federal regulations. The company helps with scaling up a recipe, sourcing natural ingredients and even research and development.
Executive Van Hallowell, who has been with the company 14 years, has an expertise in ingredients that can keep a product shelf stable without the use of artificial chemicals, as well as a worldwide network of sources for natural products. He knows a broker in Wisconsin, for example, who has organic, dairy-free chocolate chips.
"You learn a lot about the chemistry and physics in how food is made," Dutkin says. "Even a small imbalance in the formula can lead to a wildly different result."
Although Fresca helps entrepreneurs with recipes, that's not to say that you can approach the company with a homemade batch of brownies from your Aunt Fanny's recipe, and expect them to make you a food star. Rather, the company partners with culinary entrepreneurs who have already manufactured their product on a small to medium scale and successfully marketed it.
"You've gotta believe in what you do do," Dutkin says of the culinary entrepreneurs the company selects. By that he means, the food maker must have committed his own time and resources to making the product successful.
While the company gets approached as frequently as once a week by prospective clients, Fresca only takes on two to three new clients and 20 to 30 new products a year, and has currently has about eight to 10 clients in its group.
Justin Gold of Justin's Nut Butters, had been making his peanut butter and almond products in a commercial kitchen in Denver. When he wanted to grow the business larger, he first approached peanut butter companies, but they wouldn't duplicate his recipe, which he says is a proprietary process that doesn't involve the grinders generally used in the business.
"Fresca said, 'We'll take your existing equipment and make it run better and longer, and make it more efficient," Gold says. That's what he was looking for, since he wants to expand his product from Whole Foods, Starbucks and REI into mainstream groceries.
"I think it's their ability to get things done," Gold says of why he likes working with the company.
Fresca Foods, which has long manufactured pasta and pizza for restaurants and companies such as Costco will soon introduce its own line of kid-friendly meals with natural ingredients. Wagon wheel pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs is reminiscent in look, but thankfully not taste or nutrition content, to SpaghettiO's, for example.
"It helps families on the go, helps them to do the right thing," Dutkin says.
The company will donate a portion of the proceeds from each package to EFFA in Boulder. Employees are also matched with up to three days of vacation time a year to volunteer at the family assistance agency.
As the company continues to grow its natural food portfolio, Dutkin says he feels good about bringing Fresca products home to his family.
"Real food tastes better," he says.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at 303-473-1335 or firstname.lastname@example.org