This past Friday I attended an impressive event on the Stanford Campus: the pitch night for the inaugural class of Local Food Lab: a new incubator, co-working space, and educational program targeting aspiring sustainable food entrepreneurs. The event, despite being the first of its kind, was expertly executed by Krysia Zajonc and Mateo Aguilar, Local Food Lab’s cofounders. Eight entrepreneurs pitched in front of a diverse group of business owners (e.g., Jenny Huston of Farm to Table Food Services), investors (including Will Rosenzweig from Physic Ventures), and community leaders (e..g, my friend Laura O’Donohue from Slow Food San Francisco). The pitches were followed by a delicious spread of snacks, drinks, and dinner.
During the event, I was pondering how I might recap it on this blog. Edible Startups’s tagline is, “bites of innovation in the food world,” but I have to say none of the eight businesses pitched struck me as incredibly innovative or game-changing. They weren’t food+tech startups, and they weren’t supposed to be. They were traditional food businesses: neighborhood markets, consumer products, and community farms, with an emphasis on sustainability. However what IS innovative is Krysia and Mateo’s approach to making an impact on our country’s food system. Krysia and Mateo themselves are food entrepreneurs who tried to start a local food business years ago but were frustrated by the lack of mentorship, capital, and resources available to food startups, especially when compared to the resources tech entrepreneurs enjoy. This frustration inspired them to start Local Food Lab to fill this niche. I see Local Food Lab’s strategy as a machine gun approach or, more appropriately, a seed scattering approach: incubate as large a number of sustainable food startups as possible and engender change in the system from the roots up. Following that strategy, Local Food Lab will host a second cohort of entrepreneurs in the fall (application here, due September 5th) and will continue to grow from there. When I spoke with a few of the entrepreneurs after the pitches they confirmed the value of Local Food Lab in providing them with community, connections, and accountability.
Although to say that none of the eight startups excited or inspired me would be incorrect. I’ll highlight three founders whose pitches got me fired up in one way or another.
- Kristin Schmelz, The Farm: Kristin pitched a neighborhood market selling locally-made and organic products in the rapidly-gentrifying and foodie-friendly Dogpatch neighborhood of SF. Again, not super innovative or novel but she did identify a market that has a real need for its own mini-ferry building-esque space. What impressed me about Kristin’s pitch was her poise and expertise: she’s done the research and knows her stuff. She came across as very fund-able. And she’s willing to do the work to continue to learn her market. She’s just secured a position for herself at Bi-Rite Market in the Mission District neighborhood market acclaimed for having insanely high sales per square foot. She’ll leverage her hands-on experience in starting her own market across town. Can’t wait to see it come to life.
- Brittany Davis, Ooh Mami Cured Meats: Brittany’s pitch is for a cured meat company pioneering a “California tradition” of cured meat to infiltrate the French and Italian-dominated market at a lower price point. Artisanal charcuterie and salumi ventures are popping up all over the Bay but most are following the French and Italian traditions (e.g., Boccalone and Fatted Calf Charcuterie). Brittany envisions a less pretentious and more accessible (read: cheaper) offering utilizing very California flavors e.g., Gilroy garlic, wild fennel, and bay laurel. I love the idea of starting a company that creates a movement and a celebration of a brand new local food tradition. She’ll start by selling her products directly to consumers at farmers’ markets and then begin selling to local restaurants.
- Cynthia King, Community Farms: Cynthia proved herself to be a master presenter and storyteller. She walked the audience through the evolution of her startup from a faith-based local farming program to a community food hub which coordinates a wide variety of local food projects in Oakland. What struck me about Cynthia’s pitch was the concept of using religion as a point of entry into the food movement. Despite focusing on an incredibly practical and down-to earth goal (i.e., creating a lasting source of healthy food for our communities), the food movement is often criticized as elitist and out-of-touch. Congregant-driven gardens and farms at places of worship create an immediate connection between community members and sustainable food practices. I might be late to the game on this but I love the idea of introducing sustainable food to people not-yet-bought-in via religious communities. Cynthia cited Urban Adamah, a Berkeley-based Jewish farming education program, as an inspiration. I think it and other projects like it hold a ton of potential for educating and engaging more people on food issues. Cynthia is currently thinking beyond a faith-based farming program to a local food hub which coordinates garden-based education, urban-farming, production of value-added products and more. There’s a ton of potential for what a local food hub can accomplish provided it can get momentum and buy-in from the community.
Besides these three, five other founders pitched their startups:
- Rachael Mamane, Foodshed Stocks: a producer of sustainable and traceable stocks and demi-glace from regional farms (formerly Brooklyn Bouillon)
- Chris Nesladek, Seedcraft Nutrition: a producer of hand-crafted vegetable snacks (he couldn’t share the details of his stealth ready-to-eat raw eggplant product but I’m dying to hear more)
- Jenara Nerenberg, Kirata: a Nepali tea company sourcing directly from small farmers in Eastern Nepal
- Sako Ohanian, LA Food Routes: a local food transportation and distribution service bringing farm fresh products to local food purveyors
- Suzy Costello, ALA Market: a Cambridge, MA corner store focusing on local food
Other thoughts on the event: I mentioned it was expertly run. I was impressed by how Krysia kept the evening on schedule; not an easy feat with eight entrepreneurs pitching and audience members asking questions. She handled the execution of the event with grace. Krysia also had every audience member fill out feedback cards for each pitch with ratings of how well each presenter communicated the problem they’re trying to solve, proof of a market for their product, and their competitive advantage along with general comments and suggestions for improvement. The comment cards kept me completely engaged in each pitch. I’d love to see that activity again at similar events. Finally, the setting of the event was ideal. Local Food Labs is currently housed in Krysia’s mom’s home on the Stanford campus (she’s a professor). Dinner was served in her beautiful yard. The next Local Food Labs program will also be housed in her mother’s home but Krysia and Mateo are looking for another space to expand into after that.
Thanks Krysia and Mateo and entrepreneurs for an awesome Friday night!