Tofu, tea and truth

Boulder’s natural foods history is longer than you think

A man chooses from items on a display at The Bread Shop, a wholesale manufacturer of organic bread, located at 5590 Arapahoe Avenue, in 1975. Courtesy: Carnegie Library for Local History

“Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, Colorado, has blossomed into a thriving hub for the natural products and wellness industry,” explained the narrator of an April CNBC profile about The People’s Republic, which the business-focused network named one of its cities of success. “The industry’s roots trace back to local hikers who, in 1969, hand-picked wild herbs on the foothills of the Rockies.” 

The first statement is completely accurate, and the CNBC feature includes mentions of some notable Boulder food names ranging from Celestial Seasonings and Justin’s Nut Butter to newer companies like Frescos Naturales and Quinn Foods. 

But the birth of natural foods in Boulder actually began at least 80 years sooner.  

“The story they tell isn’t inaccurate,” says Boulder’s Hass Hassan, founder of the now-closed Alfalfa’s Market. “It’s just a very small, very slim slice of that history.”

View of the nurses’ home, built in 1931, at the Colorado Sanitarium. Courtesy: Carnegie Library for Local History

Whole grains and enemas

Boulder has had a focus on healthy eating since at least 1896. The Colorado Sanitarium near Mt. Sanitas was opened by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg — the inventor of corn flakes. 

Thousands of tuberculosis patients came here for the sunshine and fresh air along with exercise, unusual treatments like enemas and shock therapy, and strict vegetarian diets spotlighting whole grains. 

According to Boulder historian Silvia Pettem, the sanitarium was also one of the first natural foods companies selling peanut butter, nuts, grains, granola and some of the first plant-based meat substitutes.

Although the 1960s and ’70s get all the credit, that time period — focused on political, spiritual, social, environmental and dietary change — was actually the second wave of natural foods interest in Boulder. Inspired by the city’s growing countercultural population, many of those flower children were in open rebellion against white bread, plastic cheese, pesticides and war. 

As the interest in health and wellness resurged, so too did its less savory aspects. Kellogg was a noted leader of the eugenics movement. More than a century after he established his Sanitarium in Boulder, Celestial Seasonings would come under scrutiny for its founders’ association with a religious organization whose founding text espouses racist ideas.

Fertile ground

A woman stands near a Celestial Seasonings display at New Age Foods, a health food store located at 1122 Pearl St. natural foods
A woman stands near a Celestial Seasonings display at New Age Foods, a health food store located at 1122 Pearl St. Courtesy: Carnegie Library for Local History

Driven by a search for healthy and vegetarian foods, Hassan launched Rainbow Grocery in Denver in the early 1970s. He moved to Boulder in 1978 to co-found Pearl Street Market, which later became Alfalfa’s Market. 

There was a good reason he and his partners brought their natural foods supermarket idea here. Specifically, Hassan says: “We knew that Boulder was really fertile ground for the concept we had.”

By the late 1970s, Boulder was already home to a thriving natural foods community with a bevy of health food stores like the Green Mountain Grainery, Hannah Kroger’s New Age Foods, Down to Earth and Arati Grocery. Natural and vegetarian cuisine was evolving beyond rice and beans at the communal Carnival Cafe, The Harvest Restaurant, Heartland Café, Yarrow Stalk and a roster of small, short-lived eateries. 

“Steve Demos of White Wave had a tiny shop where he made blocks of tofu he delivered in a bucket to restaurants,” Hassan remembers. “All those people were doing it out of love. It wasn’t career oriented at that time.”

At the forefront was that little tea company packing 24-herb tea into cloth bags. 

Celestial Seasonings was “a real company producing a range of high-quality products,” Hassan says. “They weren’t a bunch of private equity guys who came up with a product and a really catchy name and located in Boulder. They were people who had to go out and make something happen without a whole lot of support. 

Workers package tea in the early days of Celestial Seasonings. Courtesy: Hain Celestial

“Celestial brought this aura of, ‘Hey, you can do it, too, and be successful.’ It certainly wouldn’t have happened the way it happened without them and the Boulder consumers who all supported it.” 

Written by the victors

While the Celestial Seasonings factory remains in Boulder, it is owned by the Hoboken, New Jersey-based Hain Celestial Group, which also acquired Boulder-based Rudi’s Organic Bakery. In 2016, Hormel Foods — makers of SPAM — bought Justin’s Nut Butter, still headquartered here.

While a handful of Boulder’s natural foods businesses became national brands, including White Wave Foods and Rudi’s Organic Bakery, many more faded from memory.

“You know what they say: History is written by the victors. Stories of the natural foods industry are told by the companies that made a lot of money,” Hassan says. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but it gets a different telling.”


  1. Good story, and so much more to tell I would have welcomed a longer treatment.

    Mo Siegel used to walk around town wearing a sign board with advertisements on it; when he and Wick Hay picked herbs in the Boulder foothills and brought them into the Green Mountain Grainery in a burlap bag, that was a major career move. I know because I was the Manager of the store. And have no doubt: Mo is a good guy and excellent business person.

    If someone wrote a book on this era – which could be described as the exact opposite of gentrification – I would read it.


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