Given consumer interest in ethically sourced, organic, raw ingredients, it’s no surprise that Harmless Harvest is a huge success. The company’s raw coconut water is just the first step toward developing markets for wild-harvested products that bring economical value to developing communities, says cofounder Justin Guilbert.

newhope360: What does Harmless Harvest’s tagline—“Positive feedback loops between people and plants”—mean?

Justin Guilbert: From the get-go, we wanted to develop a business that was a catalyst, a business that would not hide behind the black box of the corporation or brand name. We wanted to create transparency throughout the supply chain. What we are doing is harnessing individual consumer power and using that consumer power combined with other forces to bring tangible economic value to areas that do not traditionally have an immediate economic value.

[My business partner and I] flew hundreds of thousands of miles all around the world for three years before we came out with a product. As we were doing this, we actually hung out with the people of the regions [where we source ingredients] and saw what it was like and realized: Wow, it’s great that [the landscape] is so beautiful, but all the people care about is figuring out how to make money from the land—and that is because they’re basically starving. Our mission at Harmless Harvest is to give these communities actual value for that wilderness.

newhope360: Those are strong ideals. Has your perspective changed since launching Harmless Harvest?

JG: Before we began, my business partner and I were working in conventional consumer goods. I was spending 90 percent of my waking hours working for these huge companies, doing my best, overachieving, and making great money. And then I would turn around and give money to Greenpeace or other organizations I believed in. There was a big split between my day job and my personal values. The idealism that a lot of people adhere to looks like this:

I’ll buy a bottle of something, and it’ll give something to this poor kid or to this organization.

newhope360: How long did it take to get your raw coconut water launched?

JG: It took us three years, in large part because you run into as many crooks as you do mosquitoes—whether in the jungles of New York City or in Borneo. We were new to this food business, and we chose it for a very specific reason: because food is an essential part of living. Our honesty and ingenuity served us well over time, but in the first year or two we got taken along for a ride by everyone.

newhope360: There are many coconut waters on the market, but Harmless Harvest’s is the only raw option. What else differentiates it?

JG: Consumers are sophisticated. They’ve been exposed to more and more segmented product offerings that address more and more segmented or complex needs. Beverage companies have done a great job making niche SKUs [to match these]. It’s a pretty well-defined market, but there’s no longer incredible differentiation. We saw a mature SKU lineup from a functional perspective. Coconut water was a way to get immediate brand appeal.

newhope360: Do you see coconut as a gateway ingredient?

JG: Coconut water is probably the most poorly understood and most mainstream product right now in terms of media excitement. Everybody is excited about it the way they were about powdered orange juice in the 1950s. Back then, people didn’t know the difference between powdered and the real thing because, unless they lived in Florida, they hadn’t tasted real OJ. People now are drinking coconut water that’s been boiled or cooked. [Our] raw coconut water is tricky and delicate: It has low acid, and it was the perfect ingredient to experiment with high-pressure processing.

newhope360: What is high-pressure processing?

JG: HHP has been used for decades. It works well on deli meats, to keep guacamole from going brown and on other foods, but it had been poorly tested on beverages. I think it’s going to be as mainstream as aseptic [processing] in the next 10 years. It is not expensive, and it allows you to preserve volatile compounds, which are 80 percent of the flavor experience you have in any beverage. [In terms of taste,] boiling coconut water is like boiling fine red wine.

newhope360: How do you finance the business?

JG: We started by using up the credit cards, and I guess we had a good concept going beyond agriculture. People were interested in our approach. A big strategic food-bev investor now has a small minority stake. It gave us the comfort to launch something that wasn’t half-baked. 

newhope360: What’s your strategy to get into natural retail stores?

JG: We are data driven. Yes, we’re soft and friendly; but at the end of the day, we’re all about maximizing velocities on shelf, bringing value to the category, not cannibalizing the category, widening the category, and understanding how retailers work and affect the landscape. I think we bring the right tools and express a real growth opportunity. How many coconut waters can a shelf have? So why is it that we’re the number-one selling coconut water right now in Whole Foods’ Northeast region? The reason is that we are data-driven. You build the data, express your differentiation, and have tangible examples of how you’re a better houseguest. [Regarding shelf space,] I really feel like someone got kicked off the couch so that I’d have a place to sit. I see retailers as people who are opening their houses to us, and we’d better be good guests.

newhope360: Are you targeting conventional stores?

JG: I believe natural is mainstream. We don’t segregate. I want to work with the buyer who understands the value [of our product] and where we’re heading, who wants to work on a long-term partnership with differentiation of SKUs and consumer education. We’re working on developing the right partnerships.

Even Whole Foods is more than we need right now. Whole Foods has come through for us. The buyers have been behind us all the way. There were fits and starts and quality issues and challenges, but they never dropped us. They never said, “I don’t have time for you.”  They said, “That’s how great companies are built, by guys like you who are clueless but have a great idea that no one else has.”

newhope360: What’s been the biggest lesson?

JG: Be ready before you start dealing. Everyone does it—there’s always artificial excitement about speed to market. You want it all done fast. We obviously didn’t do that because it took us so long to figure out what we wanted to do. So the lesson is: No rush, no rush, no rush. If you look at Guayaki or Sambazon, they all say the same thing: It takes a long time to establish. Don’t worry about the ups and downs.

More Natural Products Expo West coverage