President Ari Sherman and CEO Jourdan Samel's hemp energy bar business has experienced a rapid evolution.
As of 2014, two years after the company launched, Evo's organic energy bars -- combining hemp seeds and hemp protein powder, derived from non-psychoactive cannabis plants, and mixed together with fruit and nuts -- could be found in 250 stores nationwide.
In 2015, the total increased to more than 1,500. Sherman and Samel expect Evo to soon be stocked in over 2,500 outlets.
Nationally, Whole Foods carries the Evo line. In the Northeast, so does the Albertsons-owned chain, Shaw's. In the Southeast, Evo is in Kroger's Harris Teeter. Negotiations with Target are underway.
Given all that, it's surprising to hear Sherman confess, "I didn't really know about hemp as a food source until five years ago."
Although he'd once tried a hemp ice cream bar sold by a vendor at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Sherman considered it a "novelty" because he, like many, giggled at hemp's perceived association with a certain, psychoactive cannabis product: marijuana. Soon, though, he and Samel were learning about the potential health benefits of hemp seeds from a new friend who runs a hemp clothing line (which utilizes cloth made from fibers from the hemp plant's stalk), as well as from Sherman's mother: a registered nurse and nutritionist.
Today, Sherman and Samel are recognized as pioneers in the growing hemp foods industry.
Sherman says of hemp seeds, "The protein profile is incredible because of the globulin edestin aminos: It's the type of amino acid that helps build up your immune system." Not only that, hemp seeds provide one of the best plant sources of Omega-3 fatty acids (also found in fish oil, as well as flax seeds).
Sherman, 29, and Samel, 28, met in 2008 at the University of Denver, where they became roommates, while the two were studying business. Sherman says they were both "entrepreneurial guys, always looking for a business to start."
They found it.
Soon enough, they were hand-making 10,000 bars a day by hand in a Denver-based commercial kitchen. Today, they use the co-packer Natural Food Works to manufacture the bars. Their Boulder office ships them out nationwide. Sherman says they've now sold "a couple million."
The two collaborate on the flavors like Cherry Walnut and Apple Pecan.
Sherman calls his personal favorite the Mango Macadamia, which was the first bar they developed. Sherman says, "I lived in Hawaii for a while, so I have some passion for the tropical flavors." The bar overflows with huge chunks of mango.
Each of Evo's flavors also contains an extra ingredient that Sherman and Samel believe add health benefits: the Mango Macadamia contains the peppy addition of yerba mate powder, which Sherman cites as "high in anti-oxidants." Sherman says, "We're all about educating the consumers about their lifestyle choices."
The Cacao Dragon contains pitaya (also known as "dragon fruit") and Brazil nuts, as well as seeded Manuka raisins that add a "nice crunch," says Sherman. Tasting slightly drier, at first, compared with the Mango Macadamia, it chews down into a rich texture and cherry-like flavor. The bar also contain blue-green algae, which Sherman calls an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, just like hemp: "So that [bar's] unique, in that it combines the two best sources of plant-based Omega 3s," says Sherman.
Each 1.7-ounce bar contains either 8 or 9 grams of total sugar, depending on the flavor. Samel says, "We like to advertise ourselves as a fruit and nut bar that's going to have about half the sugar and double the protein content as most other fruit and nut bars on the market." At the mammoth Whole Foods outlet about a block away from Evo's office in Boulder, the bars retail for $2.69 each.
At present, Evo imports its hemp seeds and protein powder from Canada -- which has a legal leg-up on the United States when it comes to cultivating and processing hemp. But, due to recent changes in laws relating to cannabis, Evo will soon be acquiring its hemp closer to home: hemp grown on licensed farms in Colorado -- in Eaton up north, near Springfield down south, and out east near the Kansas border.
Sherman says, "We've got around 3,000 acres under contract so far this summer that's actually just starting to come down this week."
The first Evo product that will be made from the U.S.-grown hemp will be a new product: hemp crisps. Says Samel: "It's the whole hemp seeds, still with the shell on it. It's bound together with a little chia. And we have a garlic and herb flavor, a sweet cinnamon, and a spicy barbecue. All those use the hemp that's grown here in Colorado. They'll have 10 grams of protein per serving. They're going to be Paleo. Gluten-free. Grain-free." (Evo products are also labeled as "Non-GMO" and "Vegan.")
Evo also plans to start an online market to vend food and nutrition products made from American-grown cannabis seeds.
Sherman and Samel have some prestigious support for their endeavors.
Colorado State University (CSU), one of the top agricultural schools in the nation, has entered into a joint partnership with Evo. Evo will receive assistance from the university on designing new products; the association also helps Evo maintain solid legal footing in relation to federal agencies like the DEA. As for CSU, the university will be branching out its contacts into the hemp industry, and giving its Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition a new project to study (a previous school project developed a quinoa powder).
And on its social media, Evo has shared a video of Congressman Jared Polis celebrating Hemp History Week by eating one of its bars. Sherman calls Polis a "big supporter of the hemp industry in general."
Sherman and Samel encourage people to find out more about hemp -- and Evo. On each bar's wrapper, above its social media contact info, Evo's encourages people to "Join The Evolution."
Samel says he and Sherman hope on "converting the rest of American -- just like we converted ourselves."
Challenges: "I think the biggest challenge is still just [the public's] knowledge of hemp foods and its benefits," says Sherman. "Still, we're at that early stage of the hemp food wave where it's gaining more social acceptance nationwide. But, still, especially when you're trying to convert those conventional Kroger and Safeway shoppers, [we need] to educate them on the benefits of hemp seeds -- and, specifically, why you should choose hemp protein versus your soy protein or your whey protein. Because in their minds it's 'protein is protein.' But there's all these other attributes that make [hemp] so much more beneficial for your body."
Opportunities: Samel says, "For us, we have a huge opportunity: just the fact that we're in this position of America just starting to legalize hemp again. And we're one of the most-established hemp manufacturers in the country. So we have that great opportunity of really establishing ourselves as the American hemp producer and brand. So for us, we kind of have endless opportunities as far as the food industry's concerned and hemp products are concerned."
Needs: "Capital is always probably the biggest need for any consumer product good," says Sherman. "Financially, it costs a lot to launch products nationwide and to really support the brand in a really competitive market space."