“It’s our Disneyland,” says Matt Hughes, VP of incubation and commercial strategy for Coca-Cola North America’s Venturing & Emerging Brands (VEB) unit.

He’s referring to Natural Products ExpoWest, the annual tradeshow for the natural, organic and healthy products industry that wraps up today at the Anaheim Convention Center in California.

VEB – whose mission is to find and develop Coke’s next generation of brands with billion-dollar potential – has been a fixture at the show for the last 11 years. Part venture capitalists, part brand incubators and part industry forecasters, the entrepreneurial-minded team invests in and nurtures disruptive brands that satisfy unmet consumer needs – from Honest Tea and ZICO coconut water, to Suja cold-pressed juices. Staying a step ahead of tomorrow’s thirsts includes an annual cross-country trek to ExpoWest.

We spoke to Hughes and Kellam Mattie, VEB’s vice president of marketing and innovation, before they joined more than 80,000 entrepreneurs, retailers, brands and representatives and more to showcase an array of breakthrough products and explore trends shaping the present and future of the fast-growing natural foods landscape.

Why does VEB hope to learn at ExpoWest? What’s your agenda?

Hughes: From the venturing side, we’re there to spot emerging trends that could inform our investments and innovation going forward. I’ll check out the supplement section of the show, for example, because that space is typically a few years ahead of the game. You see things going on in that space that may eventually become an ingredient play in foods and beverages.

Mattie: We love it is because it gives us insight into what’s new and what’s next. We go there less to find the next brand but to look for themes and keep our collective finger on the pulse of what the entrepreneurial community is building. We look across vendors – moreso than individuals – for inspiration.

Hughes: I also spend a lot of time in the basement and the attic. The main show floor is where the more established companies exhibit. The basement is where brands that have been around a few years but are still edgy and faster to market set up shop. And the newest of the new guys are packed in like sardines up in the attic, which is a tiny space. I mine these areas to build relationships and soak up knowledge. Everyone is together, so you get to share so many great ideas and meet so many wonderful entrepreneurs all under one roof. It’s an opportunity to build new bridges or reinforce bridges we’ve already started building.

What role will VEB brands play at the show?

Mattie: From the marketing side, brands in our portfolio exhibit at the show because it’s great exposure and a high-profile venue to share our innovation plans and build relationships with retailers, industry experts and media. This year, ZICO will unveil three new products, and Honest Tea will celebrate their 20th anniversary. Topo Chico, Suja, Simply, Odwalla, Hansen’s, Hubert’s Lemonade and Blue Sky also will have booths – all with the goal to continue to demonstrate how we continue to be innovative and exciting.

How has the show changed over the years?

Hughes: ExpoWest has expanded beyond its roots as a nice natural channel show. Retailers running the spectrum from Whole Foods to Walmart to everything in between are there. All concepts are represented: retail, foodservice, e-Commerce. So many verticals are represented here… all on a mission to build our brains around food and beverage trends to take back and apply to our respective businesses. 

Mattie: Health and wellbeing are driving the emerging brands of today and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. But ExpoWest is about much more than natural foods, or wellbeing brands. It’s about innovation and finding new ways to connect with consumers. And not just in the natural channel. The landscape is blurring so much. We’re seeing so much crossover as retailers hope to grow their presence in naturals and organics. The lines are blurring. So I see it as more of an innovation showcase than a natural foods expo.

How has Coke’s presence at ExpoWest evolved?

Hughes: In the early days, especially that first year 11 years ago, the market dynamics were very different. If you think about what “big food/big beverage” stood for, it was all about 12 packs and 2 liters… driving behavior that the natural foods industry completely rejected. Imagine a team from Coke showing up with our red badges to a convention center filled with (Honest Tea co-founder) Seth Goldmans. We were hissed at.

Our first big breakthrough was Seth. When he overtly embraced The Coca-Cola Company and shared that he’d proudly taken investment dollars from the company, that made an impact on the community. Many said, “Well, maybe Coke’s not so bad if he’s working them.”

We went out of our way in those early years to create an environment of outreach. We hosted a breakfast for entrepreneurs, with no agenda. We invited 20 or so people, and they all came. Then we started launching brands like illy issimo coffees, and promoting our growing portfolio. We gained some credibility when we started doing booth work and showed that we’re here to set up and tear down just like everyone else. Now, most of our major customers are here. And they look to us to help them curate their experience at the show and navigate the floor.

What’s a typical day at ExpoWest like?

Huges: Action packed! Your meetings start at breakfast, then continue all day on the show floor and continue into the night. By the end of the show, you’ve lost your voice and you’re physically drained because you’ve had so many awesome conversations with brands and retailers.

Any specific trends you’ll be keeping an eye on this year?

Hughes: There are so many, but I’m especially interested to see where plant-based protein is headed. And also the continued rise of kombuchas and other fermented beverages.