Crunch Time

Can an Organic Chip Company Survive the Snack Aisle's Street Fight?

Dawes hasn’t strayed too far from her father’s formula. And that’s served her well. Late July first started producing organic cookies and crackers in 2003, and has grown steadily since its launch. But it was when the company began making organic tortilla chips in 2010 that it hit the biodiesel afterburners. Revenues shot up 60 percent, to $14 million, and the company is on pace to make $18 million or more in 2012. And as the Whole Foods display makes clear, retailers have bought into the concept.

Still, there are times when it seems like the hardest thing for Dawes isn’t her attempt to change the world — and she’s convinced she can do that — it’s the thing she can’t change. Because even if she manages to succeed, if she creates an iconic brand that influences the way food is grown and processed for generations to come, it still won’t bring back her father, who cofounded Late July with her, and who died — quickly and unexpectedly — of pancreatic cancer in March 2009.

“It’s definitely one of those things that just sucks,” she says, smiling sadly. “I love my dad, and to think we’re having this kind of success with a salty snack, it’s devastating that I can’t share it with him.” So now she’s focused on having her company succeed on the only terms that he’d be proud of: her own.

AT 38, DAWES HAS such healthy, freckled but flawless skin, such a glowing demeanor, that it makes you want to scream at your mother for not raising you, too, on a macrobiotic diet and plopping you down in a half lotus before the world had ever even whispered the name Baron Baptiste.

We’re sitting upstairs in the 1800s Colonial bank building on Barnstable’s main drag that serves as the corporate offices for Late July (the company’s products are made at facilities in Connecticut, Georgia, and California). The small, open atrium just off of Dawes’s office, which used to serve as a playroom for her sons, Stephen, nine, and Benjamin, five, is now the lair of two aging Briard dogs, Big Easy and Teddy.

Aside from the shambling chaos that is Big Easy (who’s named for New -Orleans, where Nicole met her husband, Peter, while -attending Tulane), there’s order and purpose: The walls are neatly adorned with iconoclasts — oversize posters of Dylan and Fellini, as well as framed reminders of Dawes’s iconoclastic father himself. Photos of Stephen Bernard are hung alongside a poem called “Success.” There’s also the original printer’s plate for the bags of Cape Cod Potato Chips.

Nicole grew up in Chatham, where she and her father were fed the macrobiotic diet dictated by her mother, Lynn, who opened one of the Cape’s first natural-food stores in 1978. “Most of my childhood, my grandmother would take me to the bank in town and they would try to give me a lollipop and I would say” — she mock sobs — “‘I’m not allowed to have processed sugar.’’’ She laughs at the memory.