When we think of frozen foods—frozen dinners, especially—we can’t help but feel a little sad. You might think of the disgrace to pizza that is Tombstone or Lean Cuisines eaten mindlessly in front of the TV.
In 2002, without really realizing it, University of Denver graduate Philip Anson was on the cusp of changing all that. What began as a way to fuel his climbing adventures ultimately turned into EVOL, a multi-million dollar company. We talked with Anson to find out how he catapulted his early burrito slinging to great success.
1. When did you first begin making burritos?
I grew up in west Los Angeles so I was immersed in Mexican culture and cuisine. I was also partially raised by a Salvadoran woman and spoke Spanish growing up, so I was very interested in the Latin culture and cuisine, and super into food from an early age.
I made plenty of burritos through high school and worked at restaurants throughout junior high, high school, and college. In Denver in college, we lived in a great house so we had dinners all the time at home and I also got super into climbing, skiing, and the usual Colorado suspects. Burrito night was a staple—a pot of beans, pot of rice, and grilled meats, and everyone makes their own burrito. We did that while traveling or camping, too. Burritos were definitely part of my lifestyle, but I had no vision to monetize it as a business.
2. You began by selling burritos in Eldorado Canyon just outside Boulder. How much did you charge a pop?
That was the idea—to sell burritos to people coming into the canyon. But I never sold one. I just gave them all away. I lived in a cabin built in 1906 two doors down from the Eldorado pool and I’d make them in my cabin, pack them in a cooler, and try to sell. Then I went to a construction site, and also tried the LoDo bar circuit at 2am. I ended up asking the manager of the original Eldo Corner Market if I could sell there. I made labels and the original brand was born: Phil’s Fresh Foods. And I was in business.
3. What were some of your earliest burrito triumphs and failures?
Across the board, there were so many failures. I knew how to cook in restaurant setting, but making hundreds of burritos at a time in a rental cooking space, I made all kinds of mistakes. I broke equipment I bought. When I first tried to freeze burritos, I just shoved them into a chest freezer. I remember the burritos didn’t freeze and ended up molding and spoiling. I had seven years of nuts and bolts mistakes.
4. Was there a lightbulb, quit-your-day-job moment when you realized your fledgling business held enormous potential?
It happened really quickly—I was shocked. I don’t remember how fast it was. My first year in business, I maybe sold 100,000 in product—so much! I never had contact with that type of money before. I would walk into coffee shops and gas stations, asking to talk to the manager. It was exciting.
5. How did you come up with the name EVOL?
It was my partner. In 2007, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be able to grow the business with a made-fresh-daily burrito business because of the refrigerated aspect and limited shelf life, so I started to look at frozen. There was a gap in the frozen lifestyle brand. But I needed a marketing partner since I was a survivalist owner/operator.
It just so happened that Brendan [Synnott] and Tom [Spier], who had been part of Bear Naked [Granola], had sold to Kellogg, and were looking for a new project. We teamed up and they demanded we rebrand, and very quickly Brendan came up with EVOL. We wanted to include love. Burritos were such a belly-fill category, but there could be love in it. We wanted it to be edgier and introspective, so he put the “e” backward. That was his brilliant idea.
6. How did you expand the business from there to become a statewide brand, and now a national brand?
Brendan brought the knowledge of how to build sales. We hired a VP of sales, who started calling retail markets. We went into natural channels first, then food channels, then club channels. We were very intentional about which retailers we partnered with and when. Once it gained momentum in 2012, we knew it was a matter of time before it would be $50 or $100 million brand.
7. What is it about the EVOL brand that had enough allure to become so popular?
It’s a combination of the brand and what it stands for. The food revolution that’s unfolding in front of everyone’s eyes has reached an inflection point in the last five years. We built a brand rooted in love and farm-to-table values, but with some hipness to it in a category known as a cold and lonely place—legacy brands, uninspiring, mystery meat, sodium and fat. It just converged—it was the right brand at the right time with the right items.
8. Since you sold to Boulder Brands in 2013, what has your relationship been like with the company? Do you still retain control of the brand?
It was very unique—not only did they want the brand, they wanted to bring over the whole team, because we had a deep understanding of frozen foods and they wanted to take Udi’s [which Boulder Brands acquired in 2012] into frozen.
I came over with my team, and became VP of the frozen business unit. After a year, I became chief innovation officer and built innovation and R&D here in Boulder. I was only in that role for six months before the CEO left and I was appointed chief commercial officer, responsible for sales, marketing, and innovation. Pinnacle Foods bought the company in January and I became general manager of all of Boulder Brands.
9. What’s your most popular product to date?
People know us as a burrito company and burrito brand—but burritos in the context of frozen food are a small category. Single serve entrées are a bigger piece of the business and there’s more from a culinary standpoint that you can do. The best-selling products are our bowls—Truffle Parmesan Mac and Cheese or Butternut Squash-Sage Ravioli.
My favorite is not one of the most popular ones—it’s a new item with a polenta cake and mostly vegetables with a garlicky-red sauce. I still love the Truffle Parm Mac and Cheese with real truffles. And the Fire Grilled Steak Bowl. I’ve been hitting the cups really hard, too.
10. What changes lie on the horizon in 2016 and beyond? New products? Further expansion?
Now that the business is more scaled and significant, we’re going to augment communication and activate the brand a little more to introduce to a broader consumer base. We will continue to innovate—it’s our strong suit and will continue to be a focus.