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Small Business Digest


Food Clusters Spawn New Food Ideas, Companies, Area Prosperity

What makes a food cluster?

Sometimes it is being in a great wine growing county like the Napa Valley.

At other times it is being in a large city such as New York, Chicago or Paris.

In the case of Durango, CO, it took just one company and large numbers of tourists.

Today considered one of the great food centers in America, Durango has a nationwide reputation not only for its restaurants but for culinary companies who market to the world.

According to Roger Zalneraitis, Executive Director, of the LaPlata County Development Corporation it all started with the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Founded in the 1970’s, has helped build up local knowledge and capacity- and opportunity- for manufacturing and distributing foods.

“One might say they are the foundation point for a traditional industry cluster, he opined.

He also points out “many of our grocery stores are still locally owned, and are very receptive to new locally made products.  So when you have a new product idea, you can walk into- for example- Nature’s Oasis just south of downtown or PJ’s up in Tremble Crossing and they will provide shelf space.”

“When you combine that with that “food junkie” culture here (we always want to try out new things, and support locally made stuff) and the tourists who want to bring home Durango-made products as souvenirs, you have a built in market opportunity for new food,” he adds.

According to Zalneraitis, Durango may have more restaurants per capita than almost any city in the United States. 

“That makes us a bit of “food junkies” who enjoy trying out new products- and also the restaurant owners occasionally branch off to start a food business.  We also love beer so, like many towns in Colorado, we’ve become a haven for breweries.  We have five now, the largest of which is Ska Brewery.  We are also beginning to see the emergency of other craft alcohols such as honey whiskey as a result,” he adds further.

Being as tourist stop, locally owned food businesses have ambassadors who bring their products home.

Zalneraitis offers as an example Zuberfizz. It is a local soda company which is now in 43 states and they have never even made a concentrated effort to grow their markets. 

Zalneraitis points out “people come here, taste their product, and start getting stores back home to carry the product or distributors come on vacation, like Zuberfizz, and offer to start selling it on stores on their route- it is much easier to ship soda than beer so these kinds of offers can be made quickly.

There is a natural marketing tie-in that works for companies such as Zuberfizz, Zukes Pet Treats, and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. They all capitalize on the lifestyle element of being in the Rocky Mountains to drive sales to tourist or outdoor-related populations around the country. 

Ska Brewery also has a lifestyle component but they play up the “fun” aspect of life out here as opposed to a specific outdoor element. 

They have now also reached sufficient size that they are developing products to help other small- to mid-sized breweries around the country, such as bottling machines that cater to lower production runs but deliver the same quality of the machines used at large producers like Budweiser.

Zaineraitis adds another element to the story. “What’s funny is that we are a very health-oriented town- biking, skiing, hiking, running, rafting, kayaking, etc etc etc- but for a long time all of our foods seemed to be either beer (Ska) or snacks (Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory).”

“But over the last few years we’ve seen good growth in more health and sport-oriented products.  Tailwind Nutrition was founded two years ago and is already in three other countries and is exploring a possible retail model (they have been direct-to-customer so far),” He adds.

He points to Solay Superfood as a vegan health product that is coming on strong. 

The atmosphere for growth is also spurring new entries, Zaineraitis points out.

They include Rickys Lucky Nuts (an offshoot of the owners of the Palace Restaurant), Desert Sun Coffee Roasters, and The Chip Peddlar (a micro-chip company).

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