Hemp, CBD go mainstream at ExpoWest

Natural Products ExpoWest is the biggest natural products trade show in the nation, but one segment within natural products is rapidly taking over both the convention and the industry.

Hemp and CBD companies accounted for 170 participants at the 2019 showcase in March, more than four times the number of companies that attended in 2018. A hemp symposium that had a packed house with 500 people in 2018 overflowed the 700-person room booked this year, plus two additional rooms of 200 people for live streaming.

As the CBD craze takes over mainstream consciousness, hemp and CBD entrepreneurs are seeing a natural intersection between themselves and that natural products industry as a whole.

While hemp has its own trade shows — the NoCo Hemp Expo was moved to Denver this year because it outgrew its Northern Colorado roots — small business owners in the field saw Expo West as an opportunity to get large scale attention, with thousands of companies present at the showcase.

“The products we make are right in the heart of natural food product categories,” said Bernard Perry, president and founder of Longmont-based Restorative Botanicals, makers of hemp oil supplements. “We distribute through those channels and most of our customers are large natural food grocery stores. We’re also expanding our offerings in the natural product category. We offer gummies, coffee and we’re going to be adding a few more products.”

Other companies, such as Evo Hemp, started directly in the natural foods part of hemp before branching into CBD and other hemp products. Evo Hemp first launched its fruit-and-nut bars, made with hemp seeds, in 2012.

Because of its esconcement in natural foods, Evo Hemp has been attending Expo West since 2013 and has seen firsthand the transformation as hemp products have taken over.

“It’s grown quite rapidly,” Ari Sherman, president and co-founder of the company, told BizWest. “There were fewer than a dozen products in the entire show in 2013 that had any hemp product in them. This year there were around 170 brands at ExpoWest that were hemp or CBD products.”

In fact, Sherman said in 2013 there were only two companies that were hemp-only based companies — Evo Hemp and a company called Manitoba Harvest. He said there were about 5,000 companies that showcased that year, and while there were well-known hemp companies like Nutiva there, Nutiva at the time had branched into products not made from hemp.

“So there were just two companies that were solely hemp businesses in 2013,” Sherman said. “Now there are more than 100 hemp-based companies in just a seven-year period. It’s taken over a significant portion of the show.”

Sherman added that the organizers of ExpoWest, New Hope Network, have caught onto the craze, with many of its advertisers being hemp and CBD companies. New Hope has also added a hemp and CBD summit to the days leading up to ExpoWest.

“That has never happened for any other commodity,” Sherman said. “We never had a chia seed or dairy summit. It shows the scale and impact it’s going to have, that New Hope Media is making it a significant part of the show.”

Indeed, ExpoWest has embraced hemp and CBD as an integral part of the natural products industry.

“It’s a natural product at its core,” said Todd Runestad, senior editor of ingredients and supplements for New Hope Network. “Some call it the biggest natural product in the history of natural products.”

Because of how its taken off, and with the latest Farm Bill adding security to hemp farming, large companies have also started developing CBD and hemp products, with more on the way.

“There will be really big players,” Runnestad said. “That’s why we play the game, even though we don’t know what the final score will be. It’s indicative of something whose time has come.”

Sherman at Evo Hemp said he’s already seen it. His major competitor from the early days, Manitoba Harvest, recently had a majority acquisition by Tilray, a publicly-traded company for more than $300 million.

“The big guys are already here,” he said.

Competing as a small company could be challenging — there’s talk that brands as big as Coca Cola could be getting into the CBD market.

Perry said competing will come down to how skillful companies can be.

“We’re producing the best product on the market, we firmly believe our products are the best in the market in their categories,” he said. “It comes down to how we’re able to communicate that to the consumer, and we’re skillful in doing both.”

John Roulac – a longtime hemp entrepreneur who founded Nutiva in the 1990s before creating Re Botanicals, a hemp and CBD company —  said that maintaining an authenticity can be key to being successful as a small business in hemp as it takes off. As a longtime believer in hemp as a key to regenerative agriculture — agriculture that can renew soil and play a part in issues like climate change and carbon emissions — said delivering on what shoppers believe is important.

“Customers who are organic shoppers will look to CBD companies whether they’re certified organic,” he said.

And so far, Re Botanicals has not just been validated by shoppers, but by peers. The company is the first winner of the new ExpoWest Next Award category for Best Hemp/ CBD Product.

There could even be a future where hemp is not alone at ExpoWest. Runestad said, depending on what happens nationally, he could see a future where cannabis products — those made from marijuana and contain THC — could have booths at ExpoWest.

“It’s only continuing to grow and there’s a real chance it could be legalized in the U.S.,” he said. “So if that happens, what’s really preventing it from becoming part of Expo? Gluten-free and organic beers exhibit at the show. It might not happen overnight, but I could foresee it happening.”

As hemp and CBD continue to be hyped and become more mainstream — despite there still being some roadblocks such as issues with payment processing and advertising — Roulac said he anticipates hemp entrepreneurs to continue working to promote their products and hemp as the future.

“Hemp entrepreneurs are determined,” he said. “It’s like we’re high up in the mountains and we’re water that’s going down. If you dam us one way, we’ll go another way. Eventually we’ll be a roaring river. Any obstacles are just delaying the inevitable. Hemp is like water: it’s everywhere.”

Natural Products ExpoWest is the biggest natural products trade show in the nation, but one segment within natural products is rapidly taking over both the convention and the industry.

Hemp and CBD companies accounted for 170 participants at the 2019 showcase in March, more than four times the number of companies that attended in 2018. A hemp symposium that had a packed house with 500 people in 2018 overflowed the 700-person room booked this year, plus two additional rooms of 200 people for live streaming.

As the CBD craze takes over mainstream consciousness, hemp and CBD entrepreneurs are seeing a natural intersection between themselves and that natural products industry as a whole.

While hemp has its own trade shows — the NoCo Hemp Expo was moved to Denver this year because it outgrew its Northern Colorado roots — small business owners in the field saw Expo West as an opportunity to get large scale attention, with thousands of companies present at the showcase.

“The products we make are right in the heart of natural food product categories,” said Bernard Perry, president and founder of Longmont-based Restorative Botanicals, makers of hemp oil supplements. “We distribute through those channels and most of our customers are large natural food grocery stores. We’re also expanding our offerings in the natural product category. We offer gummies, coffee and we’re going to be adding a few more products.”

Other companies, such as Evo…