Green Belly + launching a natural foods brand in Boulder

Guatemala native Juan Ignacio Stewart on jumpstarting his hot sauce and drink brands.

By Jess Mordacq Oct 22 2021

At Sunday family lunches, Juan Ignacio Stewart’s uncle would tease him that he couldn’t handle his spicy hot sauce. So Juan, the leading consumer of his mom’s subtler green sauce batches, trained with his mom’s hot sauce during the week.

Juan grew up in La Antigua, Guatemala with that green sauce, made from habanero peppers, cilantro, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar.

It’s the same hot sauce that catapulted Green Belly Foods in Boulder in 2015. Along with his mother’s classic green sauce, Juan soon created Red Belly with smoky Cobanero peppers — sourced from Maya Q’eqchi’ farmers in Guatemala who have harvested them for millennia — fire roasted tomatoes and garlic.

He followed with Yellow Belly as a homage to Guatemalan frutero vendors who sell fruit on a stick, the most popular of which is mango with chili, salt and lime. Juan added tamarind and cayenne to his bottled hot sauce version.

Juan at a farmers market. Credit: Juan Ignacio Stewart

Juan moved to Boulder at 17 for college, and has lived here for 22 years. Luckily, the city’s culture fosters both start-ups and natural food businesses, like Izze, Justin’s peanut butter and Lara bars that were founded here.

Once Green Belly Foods started consistently selling thousands of hot sauce bottles at local markets every season, Juan shifted this year from the flooded condiment market into Latin American refrescos.

Since he started selling Frescos Naturales products in January, Juan has sold 60,000 cans of the flavored, sparkling beverages and made over $100,000 in the company’s first eight months.

Though Juan started the year walking up and down Pearl Street with a tray of his first flavor, canned Rosa de Jamaica refresco, searching for new accounts, his success with Green Belly Food’s packaging and distribution gave him a leg up on his new drinks.

Heating up

Juan didn’t know much about the natural food business starting out. His cousin Charlie grew up in Boulder, and they both went to the University of Colorado Boulder. Juan graduated with a film and international affairs degree, disciplines he pursued working for nonprofits and filming short documentaries. But it was hard for him to incur a stable income with project-length work.

Juan and his mother, Maria del Carmen, whose green sauce inspired Green Belly Foods. Credit: Juan Ignacio Stewart

Searching for a more consistent job and money flow, Juan started Green Belly Foods in 2014. He was encouraged by friends who loved the hot sauce Juan made for them, inspired by his mother’s recipe back home in Guatemala.

When they told Juan to sign up for the Boulder County Farmers Market, he cranked out the numbers to see what a batch of green sauce would cost to make at home, then joined in 2015.

“Eighty to 95 percent of business there wouldn’t exist without the Boulder County Farmers Market,” Juan says, his included.

When Juan, unfamiliar with the natural foods industry, realized it would take years to get his hot sauce into stores, he used markets and Boulder attendees’ disposable income to grow.

On any given Tuesday afternoon, Juan spent $200 on ingredients, and on Saturday morning’s market, made $1,000 selling hot sauce. Green Belly Foods now has stands at nine weekly markets every season.

Green Belly, Yellow Belly and Red Belly hot sauces by Green Belly Foods. Credit: Juan Ignacio Stewart
Cousins Charlie and Juan selling hot sauce and Frescos Naturales at the farmers market. Credit: Juan Ignacio Stewart

Green Belly Foods’ cash flow from the farmers market spurred Juan to call his cousin Charlie, who graduated with a minor from CU’s Leeds School of Business and was working with a wine startup in California at the time. For a year, Charlie helped Juan remotely with finances before moving back to Boulder.

Though Juan and Charlie started making and bottling sauce in their home kitchens, their friend, who was a manager at a local restaurant, let them commandeer the restaurant’s kitchen from 6 p.m. to midnight.

For two years, Juan bottled hot sauce made in the restaurant’s kitchen by hand, put on labels the following day, then shrink wrapped bottles together himself.

Without investors, Juan and Charlie navigated Green Belly Foods’ ingredient sourcing, scaling and bottling mostly alone, and only knew their business was successful when their profits paid for official company credit cards.

Now, Green Belly Foods brings ingredients to Colorado Copacking Company in Longmont, where they process, fill and label hot sauce bottles.

Discovering the logistics around sourcing, bottling, and how to sell and distribute product — Juan now works with Colorado distributors Local Foods, Calico and What Chef Wants — helped lead Juan in this year’s emerging Frescos Naturales journey, as Green Belly Foods’ profits became the new brand’s investor.

Rainbow refrescos

Though Green Belly Foods took off at farmers markets, Juan feels the brand’s growth is limited by its category. Abundant hot sauce options at King Soopers and Safeway sell so cheap because their makers craft them with affordable, canned ingredients. And unlike canned drinks, hot sauce can be difficult to sell to local restaurants and cafes that leave bottles on tables for free use.

With such fierce product competition, Juan brainstormed ways to expand and tested ideas at farmers markets, adding homemade black beans and salsa to his lineup for a time. He settled on refrescos, popular in Latin American homes and at markets.

Credit: Juan Ignacio Stewart

“Back home, people will make lemonade before giving you water,” Juan says. Two years ago, Juan’s son, who he describes as a teenage skater with a love for Arizona iced tea, suggested his dad bottle and sell the hibiscus refrescos he makes for his family.

Juan tested his sweet and tart hibiscus Rosa de Jamaica concentrate in 2018 at the farmers market. He set up Frescos Naturales, which now often shares a booth at markets with Green Belly Foods, by the end of 2020 with the money he and Charlie made from selling hot sauces.

In January, Juan drove around Boulder and its surrounding cities, his van loaded with samples, looking for accounts.

Juan knew which businesses and restaurants sold local products from doing the same exercise with Green Belly Foods, and he also already had a label and distribution partner from the hot sauce company.

Someone bottling for Green Belly Foods at their copacking facility started working for a carbonated tea company and suggested Juan use their services. So Juan added carbonation to Frescos Naturales, along with several new flavors.

Frescos Naturales released the best-selling flavor Maracuyá — the indigenous Paraguayan Guarani name for passion fruit, which Juan imports from Peru — and Tamarindo, a sweet and sour drink. Frescos launched pineapple and mango flavors in September and, most recently Guava, all made simply with fruit juice, sugar and water.

Juan reused some of Green Belly Food’s ingredients, since he’d already ordered them from overseas. He bought tamarind in bulk from Thailand, which inspired Tamarindo frescos, and mangoes from India for his Yellow Belly hot sauce, which he also uses in the Mango fresco flavor.

Juan has recipes for six more flavors, and plans for many more. “I’m going to make a 24-color rainbow,” he says. Because frescos in Guatemala are made with fresh, local fruit, Juan is partnering with First Fruits Organic Farms at future Boulder County Farmers Markets to create flavors with Colorado cherries and peaches.