On Wednesday, November 14th, I had the pleasure of attending Local Food Lab’s Fall 2012 Demo Night in Palo Alto. Founder Krysia Zajonc summarized Local Food lab concisely in her introduction of the event, explaining that Local Food Lab is an accelerator program for startups which “use business as a means of creating a food system that is more healthy, just, and sustainable.”
Overall, I was impressed by the up-leveling of the entire event, compared with Local Food Lab’s inaugural demo night in July, which I also attended. The atmosphere was more formal and the presenters more polished. Besides kicking off the presenters, Krysia shared with the audience some of the exciting expansion ideas Local Food Lab is pursuing: a program in New York, an investment vehicle for mentors to have an equity stake the next cohort, more structured engagement with the alumni community, and one-off topical courses for food entrepreneurs. I love how broadly Krysia is thinking about the role Local Food Lab can play in the food startup world and I’m excited to witness the organization develop.
For me, the highlight of the night was Anea Botton, with Valley Girl Foodstuffs. Anea was an effective presenter with an inspiring story. Seeking to combat the dual challenges of 1) Latino teenage gang membership in Sonoma County and 2) food waste, Anea built a business which hires at-risk teen girls to produce jams, dried and pickled fruits and veggies, and other foodstuffs. Three of her employees, Ester, Julie, and Maria, were present and introduced themselves and helped with sampling of the products (which were tasty; I bought a lemon jelly as a gift for my mother-in-law for hosting Thanksgiving).
To address her second mission, Anea sources “less-than-perfect produce” which is not suitable for sale (e.g., day-old bananas from Whole Foods or irregularly shaped fruits which don’t fit markets’ supplier criteria). This strategy aligns with her business goals by giving her a cost advantage while also allowing her to combat food waste.
Most of all, I loved Anea’s attitude about her business. When asked about competitors she replied frankly, “we’re better than them because they don’t have our story,” but she also stressed that the products should stand on their own even without the story. She’s “vehemently against being a non-profit” as she wants to teach her employees to build a business and make money, not to take money. An awesome example of social enterprise.
My other favorites were:
Sasha Narayan, Seeducate: seeking to combat “Nature Deficient Disorder,” Sasha is creating an after-school camp for kids in the Bay Area on a working farm (think: an outside-of-school version of Edible Schoolyard). I love the approach, see the market need, and believe a program like hers can have a huge impact on children. However scaling her model and, subsequently, her impact will be a challenge.
Victor Vulovic, LifeBites: after graduating with a finance degree, founder Victor spent time in rural South Africa and became inspired by a recipe he encountered there. Forgoing attractive finance jobs, Victor decided to start a company selling the adapted recipe via a product he calls LifeBites. The product is a chocolate-covered peanut butter-based mixture that can be positioned as an energy bite or an indulgent snack. The bites were tasty although they have some fierce competition from Justin’s (dark chocolate peanut butter cups are hard to beat), Clif, and about a thousand other companies making natural and/or organic snacks and treats. Despite the challenge, I’m excited about Victor because of his story and his passion for what he’s doing.
- Dana Schnittman, Brunched in the Face: Seeing a market gap for brunch food in the Bay Area food truck scene, Dana is launching a brunch-themed food truck. While the idea itself isn’t the most creative or innovative, I love the name, the cheeky menu, and her attitude. Given the food truck craze doesn’t seem to be dying down anytime soon, I see no reason she won’t knock it out of the park.
And a quick bit about the other presenters below. Lots of marketplaces and lots of focus on the unmet wants and needs of restless millenials.
- Vijay Rajendran, Hungry Globetrotter: a monthly subscription box for hard-to-find international ingredients, snacks, and recipes. Struck me as very similar to Culture Kitchen.
- Eric Knudtson, Chef Surfing: an online marketplace to connect local chefs with customers for catered events, private dinners, cooking classes, etc. Reminded me of Kitchit. What’s interesting about Chef Surfing is their current focus on the Latin American market (they’re a Startup Chile graduate). They have ~1000 chefs signed up and now need to build the corresponding customer traffic.
- Andrea Blum, My American Pantry (MAP): an online marketplace for artisan American foods with the intention of celebrating the “American terroir.” It’s a crowded space but maybe less so than in the past as Foodzie has discontinued some of its core activities and Gilt cuts back investment on Gilt Taste. Wondering what MAP will do to avoid the fate that befell these two.
- Devin McIntire, Real Good Food: an online platform for sharing and trading homemade food in a local community. Cool idea in theory (“I’ll trade you this big pot of soup for those pies you make”) but I have a hard time imagining the logistics working out.
- Joseph Crenshaw, Traditional Family Foods: Frustrated with the unhealthy lunch options for his son, Joseph is creating “lunch pal,” an organic, healthy, seasonal, and portable packaged lunch for kids. Sounds great but I’m hungry for more details on the contents of the lunches and their price point.
Thanks Krysia and the rest of the Local Food Lab team for putting on another inspiring and exciting event.
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