If you attended the two-day Food+Enterprise conference at the old Pfizer building this past weekend, you might have walked away feeling like starting a new food company is a cinch.
First off, the summit was held at one of the city’s burgeoning local maker hubs. Williamsburg’s Pfizer building is wall-to-wall with small brands, some newer and some that are more established, including Farm to People, Happy Valley Meat, Kopi Trading Co., People’s Pops and Brooklyn Soda Works. Additionally, many of the events were on the same floor as Brooklyn FoodWorks, the newly opened food business incubator.
Another potential sign that starting a food business might be “easy” is the amount of funding flooding the space. According to Forbes.com, venture capitalists invested nearly $570 million in food companies from 2010 to 2015 and the trend is showing few signs of stopping.
There was also the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from being surrounded by similarly impassioned people. As Oran B. Hesterman, founder of the Fair Food Network, said in his keynote: “This good food movement is bursting at the seams.”
In its fourth year now, Food+Enterprise began as a small sideshow at the Food Book Fair (coming up on May 1-2). The key sponsor now is Slow Money NYC, an organization with the goal to finance local companies with positive social missions. To date the national chapter, Slow Money, has invested $46 million dollars in 473 companies.
This year’s programming had a goal to “catalyze the connection between entrepreneurs and investors to finance a better local food system.” Some of the panels—including “Food Law Clinic for Farm, Factory and Office,” “Funding an Ethical Food Economy,” “Hidden Traps of ‘Normal’ Food Enterprise Growth” and “Anatomy of a Deal”—clearly supported this intent. There were also several talks focused on trending categories like hard cider, retail butcher shops and plant-based ventures.
On Saturday, the organizers organized a lengthy roster of up-and-coming markers and their products for a walk-around tasting and feedback session. A few highlights included:
- Umi Kitchen: Umi connects talented home cooks with families and individuals. Think delivery for home-cooked dinners made by local cooks. The start-up is from Hallie Meyer, Danny Meyer’s daughter (ahem, apple meet tree).
- MetaBrew: A bottled, paleo and vegan version of the infamous Bulletproof Coffee.
- ProTings: Crunchy chips with a high protein content that comes from sunflower oil, flax seeds and pea protein.
- KiiNOA!: Crispy quinoa snacks that come in 100-calorie bags.
- MetaMatcha: A matcha tea drink that includes other ingredients like lemon, mint and apple cider vinegar. I went back for seconds.
- Black & Bolyard Brown Butter: Andrew Black and Eric Bolyard met while cooking side-by-side at the famed Eleven Madison Park. Now they’ve started what they hope will be a brown-butter revolution.
- Zesty Z: A Mediterranean spread—za’atar meets lemon tang plus olive oil—lifted from mom’s kitchen and put into a jar.
- Olivia’s Kitchen: Sweet and savory seed bars that are also paleo and vegan.
Judging just by the snacks, products continue to get healthier, “meta” is still a buzzword and the popularity of matcha has not waned.
After cruising the aisles for interesting snacks, the crowd attended PitchFest: a competition for start-ups to present their business plans and show off their products. Presented in partnership with CFO on Speed Dial and Foodstand, the panel of judges included Whole Foods “forager” Elly Truesdell, Cassie Abrams of Relish Food Project, Tapan Shah of Accel Foods, Dave Hanold of NYBDC and Rajiv Singh of Rabobank. While there was only one winner, all of these companies are still looking for investors (hint hint).
- Slope Farm to School Beef: Winner of the pitch competition, Slope Farm to School Beef is a school lunch program that wants to bring sustainable meat to city kids. The start-up is already supplying beef to 11 schools, but their challenge in growing beyond that as many schools don’t have the staff or equipment needed to make food from scratch. Their solution? Beef Bolognese, made from their grass-fed cows, which comes prepared and ready to use.
- Together We Bake: First runner-up, this Richmond, VA-based start-up supports women in need of a second chance by honing their baking skills. Their products—cookies, apple chips (from ugly fruit) and granola—are sold online and locally.
- Amp Your Good: The online version of a food drive, the second runner-up allows fund-raisers to ask for fresh food instead of hundreds of cans of beans. Read more about them from Civil Eats.
- Ginjan Drinks: A Harlem-based beverage company started by two brothers who want to bring their mom’s West African ginger drink to the world.
- Stony Creek Farmstead: A grass-fed beef and lamb farm that wants to be your next getaway retreat or working farm vacation.
- Local 130 Seafood: A seafood company that works with local fisherman up and down the New Jersey shoreline. They buy the entire catch from a boat and get it to markets, stores and restaurants.
- Liddabit Sweets: These tasty chocolate treats are already for sale at dozens of retailers, but they’re looking for funds to grow the brand beyond the city.
- The Lancaster Food Co.: Another business aimed at giving folks second chances, and this time in Lancaster, PA, where the poverty rate is at 30 percent. The bread is made from local grains and in the founder’s words: “We bake bread to hire people.”
- La Newyorkina: You may have already spotted these cute icy treats around the city, but owner Fany Gerson is growing and adding to her product line, as well as opening its first store near Washington Square just in time for summer.
Being an entrepreneur of any sort is hard work, but you didn’t have to look far to find people eagerly leaving past lives to jump into the “good food” world. Many of these businesses have hopes to scale up for good by simultaneously benefiting their society, the planet and their bottom line. Wouldn’t it be nice to tell Mark Bittman he’s wrong?