Reaching the NEXTY Awards finals is a major accomplishment, as about 12% of the hundreds of nominated brands made the cut for the Natural Products Expo East competition. It's even more rare that a first-time nominee becomes a finalist, but a handful did this season. Before the awards were announced in September, New Hope Network writers spoke with these honorees to share their stories.
"I used to hate veggies," admits I Eat My Greens founder Manuel "Mac" Villarreal. He would eat them only when his mother and grandmother snuck them into the homemade soups they ate daily.
Today, Villarreal essentially does the same for veggie-averse consumers across the country with his line of plant-powered, nutrient-dense, fresh soups in flavors like Black Bean & Chipotle with Cacao; Pea, Ginger & Coconut and Zucchini & Cilantro with Cauliflower, which was a NEXTY Award finalist for Best New Product Supporting a Plant-Based Lifestyle.
The voyage from veggie-averse boy to veggie-pushing soup monger was not a direct one, however. When the junk-food-loving Mexican native was training to be on Mexico's sailing team for the 2000 Olympics, he found himself in the middle of the ocean with no wind in his sails, nutritionally speaking. That's when he started to focus on eating well. His Olympic quest taught him that the food he ate determined his performance, energy level and well being.
And that revelation planted a seed that sprouted when the father of three found himself struggling to get his kids to eat vegetables. It was hard, and he knew other people faced the same challenge.
Villarreal, who moved to the United States in 2012, launched I Eat My Greens in 2020 to create "healthy, truly nutritious food that tastes amazing and is accessible to people in their fast-paced lives." The soups are cooked in small batches with whole food ingredients with no added sugars, fillers or preservatives. "They are chef-crafted, nourishing soups that make eating veggies irresistible," he says.
How has your entrepreneurial journey been similar to Olympic sailing?
Manuel Villarreal: The first words that come to mind are "resilience" and "grit." Both the entrepreneur journey and the Olympic journey are challenging, but I believe that's what attracted me to take the plunge and go for it. The fact that I have to challenge myself and let my motivation drive me is rewarding. I'm fortunate to be able to choose this journey and if I chose it, I better enjoy it. The ups and downs of an Olympic campaign and an entrepreneurial journey are very real and steep. But I keep reminding myself that it's all about the journey, not the destination. At the end of the day, the journey takes years and the destination (the actual Olympic Games or perhaps a business exit) only lasts for a couple of days. Don't get me wrong, my Olympic experience was out of this world but it was the final reward after an unforgettable journey.
What's next for I Eat My Greens? What are you most excited about?
MV: What excites me the most is the positive impact we are having on the communities we work with and on the consumer. By expanding our distribution, we will increase our capacity to positively impact the lives of the farmers we work with and the people in the production line cooking our soups. The more growth we achieve, the more resources we'll have to make a bigger impact in the communities we work with. And, equally important, by growing our distribution we will have the opportunity to change people's perception about vegetables. We have a big problem in our country, where only 1 in 10 Americans meet their daily veggie intake.
There´s nothing more fulfilling to me than reading an email from someone who is now enjoying veggies and has changed his/her eating habits thanks to the help of I Eat My Greens. This fires me up to keep working hard and to wake up every day with a purpose.
What is your company doing to incorporate sustainability or J.E.D.I. values into your business?
MV: I Eat My Greens is a minority-owned business that supports small-scale family farms who practice regenerative agriculture. Together with our farmers, we've developed social programs to give back to the communities we work with. We are very fortunate to work with amazing people, of which 80% are women. We provide free vegetables to people working in the fields and in our production line. We also teach them about preparing fresh, healthy meals for themselves and their families. The goal of this program is to make a permanent long-term impact in their well-being by reducing their intake of unhealthy highly processed food, which unfortunately, constitutes a large part of their diet.
We're also donating a portion of our sales and volunteering our time to connect underserved communities with healthy, nutritious food in partnership with Feeding San Diego.
I'm very proud of our diverse team and of the relationships we've built with our farmers and manufacturing partners whom I can now call friends. My heart is filled with joy every time we make healthy eating available to someone and we positively impact their life, especially those in most need.
Why did you choose to enter the Expo East NEXTY Awards competition this year?
MV: I see the NEXTY Awards as a celebration of our industry. A recognition of our industry's innovation and constant movement towards offering better products for people and the planet. Products that make a difference in the wellbeing of society. It was that kind of thinking that inspired me to apply for a NEXTY Award.
If you had to sail across a sea of one of your soup flavors which one would it be and why?
MV: Ha-ha! I'm torn between our Carrot & Sweet Potato with Turmeric soup and our Zucchini & Cilantro with Cauliflower. I can't decide if I want to sail in a bright orange ocean or a bright green one. I think the bright orange would be more unique. That would be surreal. All I would need to bring with me are some croutons to pair up with my daily soup and I could sail around the world!