Sweet potato pie might be hitting some holiday dinner tables in a very different form this year — and it’ll be chewier, but a lot healthier. It’s just one of the flavors of fruit and vegetable leather created by Boulder’s own John and Lisa McHugh.
In July 2011, the couple, fresh off of a European adventure, decided to take the refined way of eating they learned in Europe and bring it not just to Boulder, but to the entire country. What started out as a kitchen experiment quickly turned into a fast-growing business that fits snugly in the nation’s growing organic food scene.
After graduating from college, the couple decided to forgo the corporate track that college and experience had prepared them for — John was an engineer and Lisa was a personal trainer — and spend some time working on organic farms in Europe, and somewhere along the way they found inspiration.
“They put food on such a pedestal, and here we don’t do that and that’s the problem,” John says. “Here, we don’t really care what the food looks or tastes like, we just want it fast. We wanted something that was really flavorful and mimicked those fresh flavors from the farm and the nutrients as well without adding any garbage to it.”
With a vague idea for a concept, a love of flavor matching and cooking, and a countertop food dehydrator, the couple set out to create an organic food to sell at local farmers’ markets. The original plan was to create some sort of trail mix, but instead, they stumbled upon the idea of fruit leather with a twist.
“It only seemed natural to put vegetables in them, too,” Lisa says. “There aren’t any other brands of fruit leather-type items that have spices in them, either.”
John and Lisa are in the process of gaining an organic certification and just recently received a Non-GMO Project Verified seal for Veggie-Go’s. The nutritional snack accounts for half of a serving of both fruit and vegetables and, according to the couple, has about a third of the sugar found in generic brands of fruit leather.
“Our product is made with whole fruits and whole vegetables,” John says. “It’s not a concentrate, and there are no added sugars. Nothing artificial.”
Other such products exist, but in slightly different forms. A company called Montana Leather Creations has three different flavors of 100 percent natural, no-sugar-added fruit and veggie leather that is available in several states, though not yet in Colorado.
Trader Joe’s has a fruit and veggie flavor of organically made leather that has its own distinguishing factor. Their healthful snack is made with psyllium husk, flaxseed and inulin, adding a great deal of fiber to the mix, both in nutrition and taste.
When dreams of landing a spot at Boulder’s “cutthroat” farmers’ market were not quite realized, the couple says, they decided to go a different route and worked to get their Veggie-Go’s on the shelves of grocery stores.
Armed with hand-cut snacks in bags with home-printed labels, John and Lisa found their first success with the organic grocery store Alfalfa’s.
From there, Veggie-Go’s made it to the shelves of independent grocery store Lucky’s Market and into the Vitamin Cottage system. After many emails and one very successful meeting, the McHughs landed a spot with the national chain Whole Foods in January.
“As soon as she tried them, she wanted them in the store,” John says of the store representative who tasted the product. “We had a whole sales pitch ready and we didn’t even have to give it.”
Months later, Veggie-Go’s have become available across the United States, in small, scattered independent grocery stores, at farmers’ markets and through the addition of Whole Foods’ southern region.
Throughout the many different states where their product can be purchased, John and Lisa say they have enjoyed the response, particularly among moms.
“One mom was mad at us because we were causing after-school fights,” John says. “The kids were fighting over the last one.”
The couple says that fruit and veggie leather makes a great after-school snack for kids, but ringing in at only 20 calories, it’s also a smart way for adults to snag a bite at the office, or for personal trainers like Lisa to recommend to clients.
More importantly for Lisa, though, is that Veggie-Go’s offer the pair a platform for education on organic, non-GMO foods.
“I would love to start doing talks in schools or in a corporate kind of setting, really focusing on the educational side of it,” she says. “That would touch home for me; not just promoting the product, but being an educator on the subject. There’s more and more media on it, so people are finally starting to catch on.”
John and Lisa’s company, The Naked Edge, is expected to add new flavors to the existing flavors — cinnamon beet, sweet potato pie, carrot ginger and mountain berry spinach — as soon as the expansion plans slow down a bit.
“We plan to be the next in a long line of Boulder companies that are national brands,” John says.