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Tap In to the Organic Craze

This column originally appeared on Real Money at 9:30 a.m. EDT on June 7.

NEW YORK ( Real Money) -- Most of the time, the term "growth" is used metaphorically in the investing world but, occasionally, it is appropriate for a company that literally grows things. Annie's (BNNY) is not exactly an agricultural stock, but it has grown a very tasty little business from natural and organic foods that it packages in -- you know -- plastic.

The company's premium products are geared toward health-conscious consumers who are looking to avoid artificial flavors, synthetic colors and preservatives that are used in many traditional packaged foods. The name comes from its co-founder, Annie Withey, who started the company in 1989 along with Andrew Martin, selling macaroni and cheese dinners to supermarkets and natural food retailers in New England. (The stock symbol BNNY, by the way, is a tribute to the company's mascot -- a rabbit named Bernie who appears as a seal of approval on all products.)

The company now offers more than 125 products that are available in 25,000 retailers around the U.S. and Canada, including Wal-Mart (WMT), Kroger (KR), Safeway (SWY) and Whole Foods (WFMI). The product lineup still includes the original mac and cheese, as well as snack crackers, fruit snacks, graham crackers and a newly rolled-out frozen-foods group of pizza offerings.

On March 28, Annie's went public, with 5 million shares priced at $19 apiece -- but, by the end of that first trading session, it had shot up to close just shy of $36. Since then Annie's has traded in the $38-to-$40 range, making for market capitalization of more than $600 million. It exited the initial public offering with a strong balance sheet of zero net debt and about $20 million remaining on its current credit facility.

The company's revenue has grown by 25% over the past 12 months, and shares trade at a premium to its peer group. But, considering the short time frame that shares have had to trade, it was nice to see an upbeat fiscal fourth-quarter earnings report Wednesday. Emerging-growth investors will find the stock fairly expensive at current levels, but it'll be worth being patient -- and letting it grow into expectations.

On a macro level, the natural and organic food market is an attractive one, with producers able to sustain premium pricing and a customer base that is more loyal than that of the broader packaged-foods industry. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, sales in the $40 billion niche market grew by 11.5% in the past several years, but are expected to grow more than 14% through 2014.

Research firm Canaccord Genuity points to several factors in the recent growth of the natural and organic foods market. These include product expansion into mass supermarket chains, new standards for organic certification from the Department of Agriculture and the heightened focus on skyrocketing medical costs and healthier living. As a result of all this, the percentage of U.S. consumers buying at least some organic products has grown from 40% in 2001 to nearly 80% in 2011.

This excess growth is what makes Annie's special, as it is the market leader in many of the food categories in which it competes. The company operates in three main product categories: meals, snacks, and dressings/condiments. The meals segment, at 42% of revenue, includes canned and skillet meals and pastas, while the snacks group includes the popular cheddar bunnies, granola bars and fruit snacks. The smallest group, dressings and condiments, represents 20% of sales and includes salad dressings, ketchups and barbeque sauces.

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