The Future of Protein: Event recap

On Thursday night, I organized an event on behalf of the Food Startups group focused on innovation in protein. We featured a panel of entrepreneurs and investors working on both plant-based and insect-based protein sources. Wade Roush from Xconomy did a stellar job moderating. The panel comprised:

My highlights from the panel:

Josh Tetrick, Founder and CEO, Hampton Creek Foods

Josh Tetrick, Founder and CEO, Hampton Creek Foods

It was truly a treat to listen to Josh talk about his strategy for Hampton Creek. I didn’t know much about the company before the event and now I’m smitten. His mission is to take down the battery-cage egg industry by creating a plant-based egg substitute. However he’s approaching it from an angle that doesn’t require consumer behavior change (which is hard): for products which contain eggs as an ingredient, he’s partnering with manufacturers to replace the egg with a cheaper, more sustainable, more humane substitute. Because consumers aren’t buying cookies for the egg itself, they likely won’t care if the egg becomes an egg substitute, particularly if the price comes down. What’s so appealing about Hampton Creek is that it’s not focusing on the niche coastal foodie market. According to Josh, “we solve the problem when get at people who aren’t thinking about these issues.” His barometer for success is “when we’re dominating the Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, Alabama,” which is where he grew up. Hampton Creek can dominate the Piggly Wiggly because it’s able to be 20% more affordable than battery-cage eggs with a 50% margin. Pretty impressive.

Josh also shared some of Hampton Creek’s upcoming innovations: Just Mayo, a mayonnaise made with an egg substitute which will hit the stores next month in the prepared foods section of Whole Foods, and Just Scramble, a plant-based product which scrambles in the same way eggs do, is ~6 months away. Josh did acknowledge that the scramble product represents a bigger challenge on the consumer front because the egg is the main dish, not just an ingredient. However the product should also be ~20% more affordable than eggs. I’ll be curious to hear how Just Scramble does at the Birmingham Piggly Wiggly.

Wade Roush, Xconomy

Wade Roush, Xconomy

I’m also really intrigued by entomophagy (eating bugs) and its potential to meet our growing calorie demands worldwide. Both Gabi and Dan talked about the potential for edible insects. In terms of behavior change, globally the hurdle isn’t as high: almost 100 countries already rely on insects as a food source. Within the US, popular acceptance is not right around the corner. But Gabi offered a great parallel with sushi: in the 1960s, most Americans considered raw fish to be disgusting. However when a chef in LA reconfigured sushi into the California roll, it caught on. I think it’s fair to say that by now sushi has entered the mainstream in the US. Gabi and Greg are hoping their exo bar will do the same for insect protein (for more on Exo see previous post). Dan also expressed that the trend is being driven from the top as high-end chefs and restaurants are incorporating insects into haute cuisine (e.g., two Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen).

On the investor side, both Scott and Amol shared their rationale for investing in alternative proteins. For Founders Fund, the Hampton Creek investment was attractive because of the company’s potential to make a big impact on the food system without confronting consumers directly and by achieving a lower price point than eggs themselves. Amol from KPCB shared that his motivation for changing the food system stems from his past experience working at Cargill and witnessing firsthand the inefficiency of animal-based protein. He has led Kleiner’s investment in Beyond Meat and has a few other food and agriculture investments in the works.

Wade closed the panel by asking each panelist for their one piece of advice for food entrepreneurs; running down the list:

  • Gabi: Go to market with testing as soon as possible (don’t spend long trying to get the product perfect; i.e., embrace the minimum viable product)
  • Dan: Along similar lines, start moving soon; food companies take much longer to build than a software company (chemistry, cooking, supply chains, “de-bugging…”) so don’t drag your heels
  • Scott: Figure out what your technology is, and what makes you better equipped to do it than others
  • Amol: Resist the temptation to think small; focus on global impact
  • Josh: Pursue the goal of taking down animal agriculture; “there so much room for innovation and disruption, and animal agriculture is liked to fostering so many of today’s problems”

2013 08 Future of protein 148In addition to the panel, attendees also were able to enjoy samples from the following companies:

  • BisonBison – meatballs made with ground bison (pre-order via their indiegogo campaign)
  • Chirp – banana muffins made with cricket flour
  • Exo – cacao nut protein bar made with cricket flour (pre-order via their kickstarter)
  • Hampton Creek Foods – chocolate chip cookies made with Beyond Eggs plant-based egg substitute
  • Tiny Farms – mealworm brittle

Special thanks as well to our event sponsor: Dice, and to SoMa Central for hosting us. And thanks to everyone who attended and participated!

EB Moore and Sam Rust from BisonBison

EB Moore and Sam Rust from BisonBison

Megan Miller from Chirp

Megan Miller from Chirp

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Exo: Is that a cricket in my protein bar? I hope so!

exo_spread_1

Exo bars are made with cricket flour, raw cacao, dates, almond butter, and coconut

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of entomophagy (edible insect consumption) ever since I heard about Don Bugito when visiting La Cocina in the summer of 2011 (Don Bugito is a San Francisco street food operation serving dishes inspired by pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine in which insects play a starring role). When I think about the challenges of feeding the population of 2050, edible insects make a lot of sense: raising them is economically efficient (with ultra-low start-up costs), the operations are infinitely more environmentally-friendly than farming animals, and they’re healthy: packed with protein, good fats, and fiber. The May 2013 UN report on edible insects helped to fuel my excitement on the topic (for a summary, this National Geographic article is great).

exo_title_screenI was even more excited to learn that two recent Brown University graduates are launching a food product with insects as a key ingredient. Exo is a protein bar made with cricket flour. Founders Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis have launched a Kickstarter project to raise $20,000 over the next 30 days. The Kickstarter page has a bunch of data and rationale supporting the entomophagy movement. They also have a pretty interesting story of how the idea came about. Check it out. I’ve included their press release below as well.

founders

Founders Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz

If you’re interested in meeting the founders, trying the product, and learning more, we’ll be featuring them at the next Food Startups event on Thursday, August 8th. The panel on “the future of protein” will feature Gabi along with founders/investors from two plant-based protein startups: Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat, and another insect venture: Tiny Farms. Tickets are limited and available for $20 at https://cosemble.com/foodstartups/the-future-of-protein.

Exo to Make Protein Bars from Crickets
Innovative food start-up launching Kickstarter campaign to make first large batch of cricket-based bars. Crickets are exceptionally nutritious and uniquely sustainable

BROOKLYN, NY — Exo seeks to introduce entomophagy (the eating of insects) to the West through a protein bar made from cricket flour. The company was founded by Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, college roommates since their sophomore year at Brown University. Lewis has an obsession with everything health related—from nutrition to powerlifting—and was searching for a protein bar that would satisfy his high nutritional standards.

He couldn’t find one. He realized that there was a market opportunity for an all-natural, paleo-friendly protein bar and set out to create it. Sewitz, having just returned from a conference at MIT hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on climate change and resource scarcity, suggested insects as a protein source. After much iteration—and a few runaway crickets later—they have created a bar that solves both of the issues that inspired it.

Exo uses crickets because they are very high in protein, iron and calcium, and are much more sustainable than traditional protein sources. Cricket protein is also exceptionally good quality: it has high bioavailability and contains all the essential amino acids. Additionally, eating insects represents the first viable solution to the 70% expected rise in food demand by 2050. They require almost no water, a tiny amount of space, and very little feed. Some studies suggest that raising crickets for protein is 20x more efficient than cattle.

“Eating insects is sustainable in every dimension: nutritionally, environmentally and economically,” says Lewis. “In that sense, insects are a true superfood.”

About 80% of the world already eats over 1,681 insect species, and with the recent May 2013 UN report on the benefits of eating insects, governments and private investors are taking note. Nordic Food Labs, the research arm of Noma restaurant, named the World’s Best Restaurant by San Pellegrino for three years running, has just won a 3.6 million Danish Kroner grant to develop gourmet insect-based food.

The product has been formulated with the help of Three Michelin Star Chef Kyle Connaughton, the former Head Chef of R&D at the Fat Duck Restaurant in England, making it unique amongst protein bars for its emphasis on taste. In addition to crickets, the bar contains almonds, dates, cacao, honey and sea salt; it contains no gluten, grain, soy or dairy. Exo will be among the first insect food products widely available in the US.

“We’re really using sushi as a model,” says Sewitz. “As crazy as it sounds, in the 1960s, the idea of eating raw fish seemed disgusting to Americans. But a chef in LA mixed the fish with cucumber and avocado, wrapped it in rice, and people loved it. Now of course people even love sashimi. We hope our bars will act as a similar vehicle to introduce insects to the mainstream.”

Exo’s Kickstarter campaign launches July 29th, with a goal to raise $20,000. This will cover their first large production run, including kitchen rentals, equipment, ingredients, and packaging.

About Exo
Exo was formed in early 2013 by Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz during their final year at Brown University. Motivated by the nutritional and environmental benefits of entomophagy, Exo seeks to normalize the practice of eating insects by creating healthy, delicious, and sustainable protein bars.

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Can We Be Saved From Our Own Appetites? by guest blogger Austin Kiessig

Atlantic coverThe Atlantic recently ran a cover story with the provocative title, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.” Author David H. Freeman makes the case for why we must turn to big food companies to save us from our obesity crisis. In fact, he antagonizes this very blog along with a collection of other organizations and authors for advocating real food, or what he calls, “wholesome food.” I’ve been working on my reaction to the article (teaser: I disagree with a few points–I don’t believe processed food is just as healthy as unprocessed food–but I do agree with others–incremental changes in Big Food can have a huge impact) but my close friend Austin Kiessig beat me to it. He sent me the brilliant piece of writing below on his own understanding of our current predicament and his view on what changes are possible. It’s a great read and I’m proud to publish it on this wholesome-food-advocating blog.

First, a bit about Austin: A classmate of mine at the Stanford GSB and my Co-President of the GSB FARM Club, Austin is incredibly knowledgeable as well as passionate about the food system and nutrition. Before the GSB he worked for Roll Global: the holding company behind Paramount Farms, POM Wonderful, and Fiji Water. Since graduating in 2012, he’s spent the past year working alongside and writing case studies for management legend Irv Grousbeck at the GSB while exploring potential ventures in food and farming. I’ll let him take it from here…

Can We Be Saved From Our Own Appetites?
by Austin Kiessig

In-N-OutWhere I live, my rent is sky-high, I can see the ocean, and I commute to work via bicycle and train.  One facet of my lifestyle that I value immensely is that my neighborhood enables regular access to nutrient-rich, fresh foods.  Farmer’s market-worthy produce and meat are available within a short walk at dozens of distribution points—Lululemon-trafficked grocery stores, cafes filled with earbudded heads floating above glowing Apple logos, and a smattering of high-priced “date-worthy” restaurants.  Oh, and farmer’s markets.

My lifestyle bears little resemblance to the average American’s.  I’m a card-carrying San Francisco stereotype.  Don’t stop reading yet, though: it’s not as bad as it seems.  I’m not cool enough to be a hipster, nor wealthy enough to be an insufferable snob.  But I am a Pollanite: a devotee of Michael Pollan’s normative proclamations about how all of us should eat.  In short, I believe that every American should seek out less packaged and/or fast food, consume far more produce, cook at home more often, and, frankly, pay more for food.  Among all economic goods, food is the ultimate “you get what you pay for” proposition.  Want readily-available, cheap burgers?  Okay.  But be prepared to foot the bill later on for the “externalized” costs of agriculture subsidies, a degraded ecosystem, waning natural resources, and skyrocketing public health bills.  Paying more for food today generally means you’re just paying those “externalized” costs up front instead of later.

But I am cognizant of a critical, stubborn fact of life: not everyone can afford to eat like a Pollanite.  And importantly, even if they could afford to, not everyone wants to.  In fact, I believe that the vast majority of Americans don’t want to.  It bears repeating—lest my Silicon Valley and Manhattan readers forget it—that my (your?) lifestyle is an anomaly in our country.  I sought out that lifestyle and made it so, particularly the food part.  But for many Americans, the aptly-named industrial food system works quite well.

In no other place on earth at any time in history have people been able to get fat (and happy?) spending such a small percentage of their incomes on food.  And, for the most part, Americans LOVE that food.  Even the most devout Pollanite must confess to the guilty pleasure of a road trip stop at In-N-Out, insulated by hundreds of miles from the judging eyes of their preachy fellow apologists.  Or the bliss of a late-night Taco Bell ambush.  I imagine that even when Alice Waters bites into a Big Mac, she cannot stem the Requiem For A Dream-style pupil dilation, heart rate escalation, and heady endorphin release.  Those physiological responses are universally triggered by the food science opus that is sugar, salt, and fat masterfully calibrated within a perfectly replicable architecture of bun, meat, and fixings.  Our corporate food giants have achieved six-sigma production of sensory rapture on a global scale, and that achievement is heralded every time a consumer opens their wallet and votes for more.  How many billions have scampered hungrily towards the Golden Arches to date?

Americans are addicted.  There is no longer a debate.  Excellent journalism has laid bare that reality.  But it’s more than just an addiction to sugar, salt, and fat.  It’s an addiction to cheap prices and convenience.  Industrial food rules the day because it has conquered the competitive (un)holy trinity: taste, price, and distribution (a.k.a. convenience).  For the average American, the Pollanite diet wins out on precisely zero of these three critical hinge points of consumer choice.  Fresh produce fails to frenzy the taste buds, is pugilistic on the pocketbook, and seems (or actually is) absent from their aisleways.

Change is Needed, but What Kind?

I want the food system to change.  But I understand the enormity of the challenge.  Agriculture subsidies for a select few crops prop up an enormous infrastructure of industry and profits.  If those subsidies were taken away, eventually Americans would be able to buy nutrition at price parity to their empty calories.  But the subsidies will not go away any time soon.  In short, that means that industrial food will continue to win on taste (the momentum of food science undergirded by a cheap ingredient menu), price (buoyed by an uneven economic playing field), and distribution (an entrenched, scaled supply chain).  Silicon Valley’s techno-optimist hackers dream of a killer app that will streamline the path of produce to farmer’s markets and grocery stores and lower the cost of “the good stuff” so profoundly that denizens of inner city food deserts will simply have to buy it.  But I don’t think nutritional food price parity is achievable in the current system.  Ever.  The current factory food machine is too damn good at what they do.  The gap is too large.

Which leaves us with one saving grace: consumer behavior change.  If Americans can’t be compelled by a better product (per the unholy trinity) that doesn’t and won’t exist, then they have to choose to spend their money in a different way.  Which leads to another big question: why would they do so?  That query demands a survey of which behavior change models tend to work.  And which don’t.

The Scared Straight Model

The reason I chose to eat healthier was because of a very acute medical problem I suffered for two years when I was in college.  I developed two benign bone tumors—cause unknown—that pitched me into the darkest emotional and physical times of my life.  As a result of losing control of my health, I vowed I would do everything in my power to avoid getting sick again down the line.  A visit with a nutritionist and reams of reading convinced me that diet was one of the most important levers in steering my health.  So I set out to understand what I ate, and stopped eating the things I determined were “bad” for me.

This past year, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to develop a healthy snack for people managing diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2).  The product development process was incredibly educational, but not principally because I learned about the science and tactics of commercializing a mainstream food product.  Rather, I was most struck by what I heard when interviewing physicians and diabetes educators who worked with Type 2 diabetics.  Nearly all of my interviewees insisted that better snack options were needed, but they also cautioned that if those products were truly healthy, their patients would not buy them.  At first, I couldn’t understand why.  In my opinion, this demographic above all others should be motivated in the search for better food solutions.  After all, those patients who had been told they were pre-diabetic or diagnosed as Type 2* had a stark choice: reform your diet (and start pumping yourself full of synthetic insulin), or get sick and die much sooner.

But what those physicians saw among most patients were reactions spanning from modest (and earnest) dietary changes to complete denial and zero changes.  Dietary pathways and food addiction were so engrained and provided so much pleasure that many patients struggled mightily to make lifestyle modifications.  (In fairness, the synthetic insulin industry represents a powerful crutch that permits people to avoid meaningful diet change.)  A pair of physicians who managed a high-touch intervention practice told me morosely that one benchmark goal they set for their most at-risk diabetics was to integrate one (!) weekly serving of broccoli into their diet.  Many of those patients bluntly failed to deliver on this seemingly innocuous target.  To those patients, a spiraling, sickly death was less intimidating than cruciferous greens on Tuesday night.

It became clear that “scared straight” by health issues worked for some people (including me), but wasn’t powerful enough to redirect many others.  It’s worth mentioning that my research was admittedly unscientific, but the anecdotes I heard took on a weighty resonance when overlaid against the tragic macro-data on our nation’s continuing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease epidemics.  Many people get sick or stay sick not because they lack options to remediate their illness.  They end up on that path because it’s hard to change.  And if people with their lives on the line can’t change, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The Education Model

There is another school of thought espoused by many food reformists: teach people (sick and healthy alike) to eat better, and they will do so.  The idea is that an informed consumer is a healthier consumer.  Undoubtedly, there is truth to this.  But nutritional education tends to come from one of a few places: corporate marketing (guess where this leads?), parents and friends (declining household cooking rates lead to less knowledge of what’s being eaten), the government (see Marion Nestle’s writing on the constantly evolving, obfuscating, and commercially corrupted “food pyramid”), or self-directed research.  (Note what’s conspicuously missing and pragmatically far-off: food education in schools.  God bless you for trying, Jamie Oliver.)

The self-directed research pathway is perhaps the most promising, but it is a difficult one.  Why?  First, it takes time and energy.  Second, it’s confusing.  Personally, I’ve been trying to understand nutritional science for over a decade, and sometimes now I feel further from the truth than when I started.  “Nutritional science” is a muddle of contradictory dictums cobbled together from corporate-funded experiments with pre-ordained outcomes, highly specific clinical studies that provide few general answers in the context of complex diets and genetic variability, and whatever “diet du jour” is being espoused by the Dr. Phils of the world.

Despite the flaws of a constantly evolving body of nutritional science, most people manage to cobble together a body of edicts that they can live by.  The average person, when asked, can readily share their “food rules”.  For instance, someone might say “I know fat is bad, fruits and veggies are good, and I shouldn’t drink too much soda.”  Great start.  But, depending on which expert you ask, each claim is subject to befuddling scrutiny.  Fat is bad?  Well, it’s true that fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, but fat may not be what’s making you fat or causing heart disease, many fats are good for you, and fat can actually help you lose weight.  Fruits and vegetables are good?  While it’s true that fruits and vegetables are fiber- and nutrient-dense (always desirable), too much fructose or starch can be obesogenic, much produce is loaded with toxic pesticides, and french fries are technically a vegetable.  And how much is “too much” soda?  I won’t even open that can of worms.

The example above is simply meant to show that “shortcut rules” veil deep complexity.  World-class research nutritionists cannot agree with one another, much less endorse the op-ed proclamations of Dr. Oz.  So how is the average American supposed to cut through the clutter in a meaningful way?  Confusion leads to emotional flooding, and emotional flooding leads to the drive-thru.

My point is not that education isn’t worth pursuing.  It certainly is.  But unbiased or meaningfully targeted resources are rare and expensive to come by (think high-touch personal counseling by a nutrition professional).  The average American can’t (or, more sadly, perceives they can’t) afford the time and resources needed to become nutritionally savvy.  And savvy is what it takes to navigate the perilously enticing industrial food landscape.  Savvy can be the wax in your ears that helps you ignore the song of the sirens in food marketing.  But I don’t see mainstream America becoming so aggrievedly informed that they start picketing Burger King.

The Cash Incentives Model

One proven way to get people to eat better is to provide a cash incentive.  Since I don’t expect the government to provide blanket subsidies for better eating, we turn to the only other institutions that have an incentive to pay people to eat better: health insurers and employers.  Since both are exposed to the rising cost of medical care should an insured/employee develop an avoidable chronic disease, either might provide a “carrot” for preventative wellness through healthier diet.

Safeway is the case study for adopting a cash incentives program that improved employee health.  And numerous insurers now offer premium discounts for insured customers who improve on biometric markers of health (blood pressure, blood glucose, weight, smoking cessation, etc.) over time.  Even one startup is trying to get into the cash incentives game.

However successful these programs have been, they are hamstrung by the reality that most insured people will change employers or insurance carriers every few years.  What that means is that investments made in an employee or insured today may not pay off for a decade or more, so most employers and insurers have not made material investments in better eating.  For the time being, this is a dietary “fix” incentive available to a minimal fraction of U.S. citizens.

The Subversive Psychology Model

Change is easier when choices have already been made for you.  The field of psychology is rich with examples of behavior change catalyzed by subtle (or even not-so-subtle) environmental alterations.  One of my favorite examples along these lines highlights our “default bias”.  In European countries where motorists being issued new drivers’ licenses are designated, by default, as organ donors, more than 90% of people ended up registering as organ donors.  In European countries where new licensees were designated, by default, as non-donors, only some 10% of people ended up opting in as organ donors.  People tend to accept the default they are presented with.

Now, extrapolate such findings to dietary behavior.  People will generally eat as much as they are given, without even realizing how much they eat.  But people can also be anchored to consume less.  Reduce serving sizes so that people have to order two servings instead of one to consume the same amount of food, or have to return to a buffet multiple times instead of passing through once, and they will eat less.  These effects are probably familiar to all of us: if I don’t keep Oreos in the house (a particular Achilles’ heel for me), I won’t eat them.  And if I do eat them, I will eat fewer from a four-pack than I might from a family-sized container.  Environmental structure and psychological nudges matter.

The allure of subversive psychology is that it works for pretty much everyone.  Moreover, it is low-touch and low-cost.  Shrinking plate sizes does not require multi-week counseling: the change is built into the decision process from the front end.  The same cannot be said about other methods of behavior change.  And that is why I think subversive psychology is our cheapest and most-likely-to-succeed way of changing the diet of the mainstream consumer.

(Author’s note: if you can provide evidence of other meaningful and economical behavior change models, please do so!  I love being proven wrong.)

Fast Food as Savior?

The cover story in the July 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine is David H. Freeman’s piece How Junk Food Can End Obesity.  Upon scanning the title, my inner Pollanite began frothing at the mouth and mentally mapping out an erudite, 2,500-word retort.  Why even bother reading a defense of the titanic commercial demons that had turned us from a lively nation of trim Wally Cleavers into a waddling amalgamation of gelatinous aortic congestions?  I set upon reading Freeman’s piece as a predator sets upon prey: you poor thing, you never stood a chance.

But my inner Pollanite was steadily quieted as Freeman’s arguments began to win me over.  You see, Freeman builds to the same conclusion that I have: fast food has already won.  The unholy trio of commercial success (taste, cost, distribution) is firmly in industrial food’s clutches, and there’s no easy path to wresting it away.  Nor would the majority of Americans want the food landscape to change: as it turns out, the unholy trio is the recipe for commercial success precisely because it is what consumers demand from their corporate paragons.  To a Pollanite, the tale of the American food landscape is one of master and slave.  To many, many Americans, the tale of that same landscape is one of happy marriage.

Which is why I think no mainstream obesity solution can occur without the use of subversive psychology through industrial food channels.  In Freeman’s article, we see that McDonald’s’ greatest successes reformulating products to make them more healthy came when consumers didn’t know healthy changes were being made.  Conversely, many of McDonald’s’ greatest failures came when they tried to sell healthfully branded food items.

But think of the massive impact McDonalds (or Coke, or Pepsi, or Frito Lay, or Yum Brands) could have if they began cleaning up the most obesogenic foods clogging American alimentation.  Take the sum of all the calories avoided by people who changed their diet to address illness, or who improved their dietary education, or who began cooking more at home, and I am willing to bet that number will pale in comparison to the caloric consumption that was eliminated from the system when McDonald’s eliminated Super Sizing as a menu option.  There are simply too many people eating too many calories through industrial food channels to think that we can’t treat industrial food as The Front Line in the war on obesity.

If you agree with me at this point (and I know that some won’t), the next question is obvious: would these companies make those changes?  Why would they pull the rug out from under their customers, at risk of being outed as “value destroyers” or losing market share to competitors?  To assume industry giants will make such benevolent changes is to invite cognitive dissonance, ignore the inevitable outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma, and take on faith that the impossible is possible.

But for once in this long missive, I will espouse optimism.  The enlightened Pollanites of San Francisco and Manhattan can and should continue to pressure industrial food to clean up its act.  To date, incremental change has proven possible.  McDonald’s got rid of super sizing.  Pepsi has reduced sodium across much of its product portfolioAnd WalMart has stocked its shelves with a laudable array of healthier food options.  These are real wins.

(For now, I won’t engage in the question of “what types of changes are best?”  Obviously, smaller portions and real foods are preferred.  But is a Big Mac with 10% fewer calories but more synthetically engineered ingredients a “win”?  For obesity alleviation, probably.  For general health?  That’s an exceedingly complicated and subjective debate.)

And the non-Pollanites (most people, good people, the salt of the earth that make our country and economy tick) will continue to learn and ask for better.  Despite the labyrinthine zig-zag of nutritional science headlines and diet fads, people increasingly “get it”.  Americans drink less sodaObesity trends have leveled off in key parts of the country.  Most people probably feel a healthy pressure to make better food decisions every week, day, or meal.  Does that mean they’ll start shopping at the farmer’s market and start cooking at home?  Probably not.  But the needle is moving.

Furthermore, I won’t rule out regulation as a means to reform the corporate food giants.  I don’t oppose government strictures to remedy the ills brought about by government subsidies (in this reasoning, two wrongs at least point in the direction of a right.)  But Americans’ libertarian streak is a real hurdle, as evinced by the strong backlash to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large serving-size sodas.

In sum, I believe you can’t really change the way the American mainstream eats unless you fiddle with the places where the American mainstream eats their food.  The industrial food machine has a vice-grip on our appetites, and that’s a hard truth to acknowledge.  But real changes cannot be made unless those hard truths are wrestled with.  The Pollanite doctrine may work for some of us, but we are the economically and geographically privileged few.  One of the largest errors I believe the food reform movement can make is to bifurcate the country into “the enlightened” and “the rest”.  Instead of eschewing McDonald’s altogether, go buy a salad there and then write them a letter telling them that the salad was great and the Big Mac had so many calories that you threw half of it away.  And then ask them to add broccoli to the salad.  Rinse, repeat, and see what happens.

This is not to say that we, the food reform advocates, should not push forward on all fronts complementarily, in parallel, and apace.  But we cannot expect the juggernauts of our food system to change course unless we push and pull them, hand by hand, in a new direction.  That is the biggest way we can put a real dent in the American obesity crisis.

Note:
*For Type 1 diabetics, the choice was even starker.  A major trip-up in daily diet could lead to hospitalization or death.  Because the impact of poor diet was so temporally acute, I found that the Type 1 diabetics I interviewed were among the best eaters I knew, period.

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Rethinking the obesity paradigm (part 1)

This is the first part of a post I’ve been meaning to write for many months now, ever since the second annual Childhood Obesity Bay Area (COBA) Conference, held in February (I know, an embarrassingly long time ago – blame my job in consulting…). Since that conference, I’ve heard this same argument from multiple directions: the way we are currently thinking about the obesity crisis is flawed. Given the evidence, which I’ll describe below, we can no longer blame obesity solely on an imbalance of “calories in, calories out.” This message keeps hitting me from a variety of sources and I’m growing more and more convinced.

So what’s the answer instead? Why is obesity a growing issue? I can identify at least a few likely drivers of this growing epidemic (with the caveat that I am no scientist, this is based on what I’ve read):

  1. The preponderance of refined carbohydrates in our diets today (and the loss of our common knowledge that carbs lead to fat cell growth) – all calories are not equal
  2. The impact of industrial chemicals on our biologic systems and genetic expression
  3. The impact of our diets (carbs, chemicals, antibiotics) on our microbiomes
  4. …and who knows what else. I get the impression we have a lot left to learn about the inner workings of our digestive systems specifically and our bodies more broadly

I’ve procrastinated on this post for so long because it’s such a big one. There’s so much to cover and, to make it manageable, I’m going to split it into two, as well as quickly recap arguments others have made and provide links instead of explaining it all thoroughly myself. Bear with me.

(FYI the three main sources I’m drawing on are 1) Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes, 2) a fascinating article called “The Obesity Area” by David Berreby, and 3) a talk given by Julie Guthman at the 2nd annual COBA – sorry, no link for this one)

Why does the “calories in, calories out” paradigm not hold up?

Weight gain occurs when an individual consumes more calories than he or she burns, right? As a society we’ve internalized this logic so thoroughly that it’s become pretty hard to imagine it’s not true. But if that sentence tells the whole story, how can we explain the below?

  1. Despite continued increases in obesity rates over the past ten years, we are steadily eating less calories (if you’re interested, read through the possible explanations for this disconnect in the article, they’re pretty creative:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/calorie-intake-decreasing-consume-fewer-obesity_n_2824771.html)
  2. In fact, there’s no indicative proof that caloric intake in industrialized countries has risen OR that activity levels have declined since 1980, as concluded in The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology by Michael Gard
  3. Caloric intake does not significantly vary by racial groups or by income, despite differing obesity rates among these groups, according to the USDA study “What We Eat in America” (see average calories by race and by income; and yes the data are self-reported, but is it realistic that one group is mis-reporting calories by a great factor than another?)
  4. In many low-income countries and low-income communities, obesity in adults coexists with chronic malnutrition in children, often within the same families (as described in the 2005 paper, “A Nutrition Paradox – Underweight and Obesity in Developing Countries”); if obesity is driven by too many calories, are we forced to conclude parents are gorging themselves while not feeding their children enough? That’s a tough one to believe…
  5. There is a significant increase in infant obesity over the past few decades, which is difficult to blame on a lack of exercise or a deterioration of willpower (this study cites a ~74% increase in the prevalence of obesity with infants ages zero to six months old between 1980 and 2001)
  6. Animals which are in contact with humans are getting fatter too despite rigidly controlled diets (e.g., for lab animals; this one is a fun one, pretty out-there but shows there are more factors which could contribute to weight gain than perhaps we currently recognize: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101124073900.htm)

Hopefully the above are enough to get you thinking about what really drives obesity. In Part Two, I’ll share potential alternative explanations for the obesity epidemic put forth by Gary Taubes, Julie Guthman, David Berreby, and Michael Pollan.

Stay tuned…

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LolaBee’s Harvest: The race for online groceries in the Bay Area

In spite of the death of Webvan in 2001, the world of online grocery delivery has been slowly creaking back to life. The explosion of CSAs in the late 00’s brought fresh produce to the doorsteps of thousands of Bay Area residents. Now, dozens of companies are popping up to combine the CSA model of weekly box delivery with a grocery store-like shopping experience and flexibility. We’re heading towards (or returning to) a world where Bay Area residents (and beyond) could realistically substitute grocery shopping with online delivery. The outstanding questions: Which startups will win share in this burgeoning market? Who is positioned to offer the complete solution?

LolaBee’s Harvest

LolaBees-logo_0My favorite contender is LolaBee’s Harvest. Founder Lauren Bass completed her MBA at Kellogg in 2010, but entered business school knowing she wanted to start a food business. She came up with the idea for LolaBee’s at Kellogg and wrote the business plan during the two year program. After graduating, she moved to San Francisco to build her business.

Says Lauren,

IMG_9565b (1)

Founder Lauren Bass

“I grew up on a horse farm and have always loved animals. My concern for animal welfare drove me to research and educate myself about the food system. I read Omnivore’s Dilemma and realized I wanted to be part of the movement to improve the food system. I saw the growth and potential in the CSA model but I also saw the challenges that consumers were facing in fitting CSAs into their regular lifestyles. I knew that most farmers didn’t have the resources to customize their CSA programs to fit more naturally into people’s lives. Our goal here at LolaBee’s is to bring the CSA model to a larger audience and make it fit seamlessly into customers’ daily food rituals.”

LolaBee’s Harvest is an online farmers market and food delivery service. It sources local organic produce, local organic dairy, pastured meats, poultry and eggs, sustainable seafood, and cheeses, snacks, baby food, and prepared foods from Bay Area artisans. Customers create a free account and place customized orders weekly for home delivery on Thursdays in an insulated, reusable tote which keeps food fresh for over 15 hours. If a customer doesn’t have time to put in their order, they receive the LolaBee’s Harvest Box, a best-of-season collection of half fruits and half veggies.

What makes LolaBee’s stand out is Lauren and her team’s dedication to exceptional customer service, backed by the Happy Customer Promise. LolaBee’s does not have just customers, it has diehard brand advocates. Peruse the yelp page and you see “I can’t stop telling anyone who will listen how amazing Lolabee’s is,” and “I can go on and on about how wonderful this company is, but it’s best if you check it out for yourselves.” Literally, read out the reviews. The scope and depth of the praise is seriously impressive. Lauren is running an high-functioning business.

And she’s doing it with a small team. She officially launched the business alone in November 2011, and quickly enlisted her mom to help her. Entrepreneurship runs in

Lauren's mom, Debbie Bass, at the LolaBee's table at the 2nd annual Childhood Obesity Bay Area conference

Lauren’s mom, Debbie Bass, at the LolaBee’s table at the 2nd annual Childhood Obesity Bay Area conference

Lauren’s family. Both her parents owned their own businesses and Lauren grew up helping her mom, Debbie Bass, with one of the family businesses: Maypine Farm, a horse farm and education center.

Lauren explains her reasoning behind involving her mom, “having worked for my mom’s business growing up and for 6 years after college, we learned to work together really well. There’s no one I would trust more than my mom to help me make LolaBee’s a success. I’m so fortunate to have the support of my parents and their decades of experience and priceless advice to guide me through the tough journey of starting a business from scratch and growing it one farmer, one apple and one delivery at a time.”

In addition to Lauren and her mom, Operations Manager Kelvin Chao joined the team in August of 2012 and plays a crucial role in managing supplier relationships, customer communications, fulfillment, and warehouse operations. Says Kelvin on his role, “with every delivery, we set the highest bar for flavor and freshness and help small farmers reach more people. By taking the customer service and fulfillment off the farmers’ hands, we enable them to focus on the work they love: growing the food.”

What also becomes clear from the yelp reviews is that customers are 1) needing to go to the grocery store less often and 2) saving money. As a picky eater myself who frequents Whole Foods at least 3-4 times a week, I wouldn’t be disappointed to reduce my number of WF visits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a more cost effective way for me to purchase food of the same quality or better: farmers market quality. One customer notes her family of three is saving ~$200 a month on groceries by using LolaBee’s and another has eliminated 1-2 weekly trips to Whole Foods. For a service like this to fully replace Whole Foods in my weekly routine, it would need to offer a selection of prepared foods. The LolaBee’s online store currently offers fresh pasta from Santa Cruz Pasta Factory, tamales and enchiladas from Mi Fiesta Catering, and couscous and hummus from Hummus Heaven. Lauren is eagerly looking for other local artisans to add to her offering.

Other players

Lauren is not alone in this market. Luke’s Local is a direct competitor, offering the mealbox: “a mix between a CSA, personal catering, and an artisan food shop,” along with the Cuesa Chef market box sourced from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and the office box with snacks, coffee, and produce. Their boxes are customizable and delivered to customers’ doorsteps.

Lauren’s other main competitors did not start as direct competitors. Both Farmigo and Good Eggs entered the local food delivery market as technology platforms and have since expanded to include online customized shopping and delivery.

Farmigo began as a company selling software systems to farms offering CSA programs. Their CSA management system tracks sign-ups, automates payments, manages logistics, manages customer communications, enables a web store for excess inventory, and provides a mobile platform. Lauren currently uses Farmigo’s platform for the online LolaBee’s store. Recently Farmigo introduced “Farmigo Communities:” community-specific online farmers markets with customized online ordering and workplace delivery.

Good Eggs also was founded as a technology company providing the online platform and delivery management tools for local food producers and artisans to serve customers directly. Good Eggs did not initially share plans to touch the products directly, just to enable small local companies to better serve and reach their customers. However Good Eggs announced a relaunch this Thursday now providing the entire Bay Area with online grocery shopping and home delivery.

Given the distribution costs in this space, it makes sense that these two players have moved from pure technologists to aggregators and distributors. Merely providing a platform for a local baker to deliver bread directly does not solve the problem facing local food systems. It’s costly for every local artisan to run its own delivery service. And a customer does not want to worry about numerous home deliveries throughout the week. The cost savings and customer value proposition lie in consolidating products and delivery.

What this means is that competition is heating up in Bay Area grocery delivery, and I’m excited to see how it will develop. If you’re interested in trying LolaBee’s, use the code EdibleStartups for $20 off. Currently LolaBee’s delivers in San Francisco and will expand to the East Bay in early April.

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Fundraising for Food Startups Panel

The Food Startups group kicked off the 2013 year with a packed house for its first event on Thursday, January 10th. I’m thrilled to share that I’ve joined Matt Wise and Andy Saebjoernsen as a Co-Organizer of the group, and that we have plans for some exciting events in 2013.

The crowd at January 10th fundraising panel

The crowd at January 10th fundraising panel
Photo credit: Tony XQ Chen

For those of you that couldn’t make it to this event, here are my highlights:

We had over 150 attendees, significantly more than we initially expected. Panelist Andy Donner articulated the spirit in the packed room at our venue, SoMa Central: “Look around this room. This is special. The amount of interest in this area is only growing.” The strong attendance validates the market need for our group and our mandate for organizing more frequent events on topics relevant to food startups.

The panel featured a range of investors with experience funding food startups:

Meredith Schwarz, Manager at General Mills Ventures

Meredith Schwarz, Manager at General Mills Ventures
Photo credit: Tony XQ Chen

I found all the panelists to be engaging, articulate, extremely well-informed, and entertaining. I was most excited to hear from Meredith, as the corporate perspective is underrepresented in the VC/angel-dominated funding conversation in the Bay Area. She described the long process she follows with potential acquisitions as courtship: the dating, becoming serious, moving in together and finally marriage, a la General Mills’ acquisitions Larabar and Food Should Taste Good. She talked about her proactive role in seeking out potential partners: literally scouring local Whole Foods and looking for addresses on the back of packaged snacks. She encourages companies to reach out to her, especially those in General Mills’ sweet spot: solid brands with a deep understanding of their target customer.

Our rockstar moderator, Wade Roush, Chief Correspondent and San Francisco Editor of Xconomy, asked each panelist to share the trend in the food startup world they find the most exciting. Here’s what they came up with:

  • Data: The potential of tapping the exponentially-growing amount of data out there about food: food consumption, food production, etc.
  • Supply chain: Andy reminded us that Amazon Fresh will probably disrupt the entire food distribution system in the US
  • Food safety: This will continue to be a hot topic as salmonella and other scares make headlines (did anyone else listen to the disturbing This American Life episode about misrepresented seafood?)
  • Collaborative consumption: There’s still room for changing the way we think about and share fixed assets

My favorite question of the evening was when Wade asked the panelists to each give a pithy piece of advice to food entrepreneurs. What they shared:

  • Ryan: Don’t worry about valuation; get money and then execute. It’s not worth dragging the funding process on and on to get a higher valuation.
  • Kevin: Be distinct, and relentlessly pursue your distinctive idea. Don’t sacrifice your edge in order to grow, or to appeal to a wider audience.
  • Meredith: Know your consumer, and focus on them. Prioritize depth of knowledge with your target consumer over broad market understanding.
  • Adam: Be fearless and build relationships early. Funding is courtship, as Meredith explained. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with investors early, and focus on relationship building in the long term versus nearer-term tactical goals.
  • Andy: Beware of your passion and the risk that it might interfere with objectivity. Food is an area in which emotions and passion can blind the actors. Try to maintain objectivity. Be honest and be aware of your own biases.

While I believe we presented a robust panel, I did receive feedback that we were missing a crucial funding angle. Most food startups will not reach the scale relevant for any of the panelists’ investment vehicles. Even CircleUp, Ryan’s crowdfunding website, does not look at companies with less than ~$500K-1M in revenue. Instead most startups depend on credit cards, small business loans, or, increasingly, peer funding via Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Abby Sturges, founder of Culture Kitchen raised her hand at the close of the event and asked how many in the audience were founders; a huge percentage raised their hands. Then she asked, how many had received funding. Maybe 3-5 still had their hands up. Her question to the panel was, “for those of us starting out, how can we get to $500K in revenue so we become relevant to you?” The answer was disappointing, I’m sure, to Abby who recently shut down Culture Kitchen after unsuccessful funding attempts (including an unfunded Kickstarter campaign). The answer: it still comes down to friends, family, and a whole lot of hustle.

Thanks to our panelists, our moderator, and our sponsors for helping us produce a great event! Sponsors:

Matt, Andy and I are in the process of planning our next events, a mix of panels/education-oriented events as well as a few more social/networking/food tasting events. If you have topics you’d like covered, or other ideas for events, please share in the comments below. Thanks!

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Call for food-related social entrepreneurs

See below for a request from a friend of mine at Wharton who’s looking for exciting Food & Nutrition social enterprises:

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This year, Wharton Social Venture Fund (WSVF) is participating in an exciting initiative sponsored by a new domestic impact investing fund that Brian Trelstad, former Chief Investment Officer of Acumen Fund, is launching in the coming months. As part of this initiative WSVF is working with other top MBA programs to find the most promising and innovative social enterprise startups in the country.  Companies selected through this process will be presented to an investment committee of leading impact investors, and the top company will be considered for a $50,000 investment as part of an existing fundraising round.

What are we looking for?

Eligible businesses should meet the following criteria:

  • US-based company with a clear social mission, serving a US-based customer market
  • Seed to early stage, seeking funding to grow
  • Has a clear plan to reach financial profitability
  • Provides a critical good or service in one or more of the following sectors:
    • Food and Nutrition
    • Health and Wellness
    • Education
    • Sustainability and Clean-Energy
    • Financial Services
  • Currently raising  $100,000 to 1 million in equity funding to further growth

What’s in it for the entrepreneurs?

Companies that enter the WSVF screening and due diligence process will:

  • Potentially receive feedback on the business plan from WSVF members and our investment committee made up of Wharton professors and outside investment professionals
  • If advanced in the process, the opportunity to interact with and get feedback from Brian Trelstad, former Chief Investment Officer of Acumen Fund, and other professionals in the impact investing space
  • Become eligible to receive $50,000 in funding from the new domestic fund this April 2013

Next steps

Interested parties should complete a short questionnaire on our website ASAP at http://whartonsocialventurefund.org/get-involved/entrepreneurs/.

About Wharton Social Venture Fund: http://whartonsocialventurefund.org/about-us/inside-wsvf/

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Local Food Lab Fall Demo Night

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.

Anea Botton pitches Valley Girls Foodstuffs

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 pitches Seeducate

    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 pitches LifeBites

    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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Demo night for small batch Bay Area food producers

Matt Wise and his food startups meetup team executed another successful event last Thursday night along with the help of Buyer’s Best Friend. They brought together a great group of small batch food producers along with attendees doing all sorts of interesting things in the food world. My highlights from the evening:

Every time I interact with Pat Galvin, founder of Vignette Wine Country Soda, I like him and his company more. I first encountered him at the last food startups meetup in June and since then I’ve started to see market needs for his product all over the place.

  • Pat Galvin from Vignette pours samples for guests at the Buyer’s Best Friend Wholesale & Mercantile store

    Example: Teens Turning Green is a non-profit of which I sit on the board. We’re hosting a celebration at the end of the month for the culmination of Project Green Challenge. There will be many high school and college student participants attending. We wanted to serve wine but felt that would be inappropriate with all the under-21-year-olds. Vignette immediately popped into my mind as a festive age-appropriate wine alternative: the updated Martinelli’s sparkling cider. Lucky for us, Pat has graciously volunteered to donate Vignette for the event and support Teens Turning Green.

I tasted some delicious stuff and had a chance to meet the founders of these businesses:

  • Moksha Beer: Indian-style micro-brews. I’m loving this growing trend of entrepreneurs bringing Indian-inspired products to US consumers. See also:
    • Fojol brothers: some friends of mine serve Indian food in a food truck in DC with a whimsical make-believe backstory about their native land of Merlindia
    • Bandar foods: Indian-flavored hot sauce. The mango product has a very unique taste, and packs quite a punch.
    • Mohinders: not food related at all but my husband is building a company which will sell handmade Indian-inspired leather footwear in the US, if you’re interested sign up to be informed of its launch at www.mohinders.com
  • Madecasse: one of my favorite chocolate bars out there. The sea salt bar is pretty hard to beat. Our $15 admission ticket to the event came with $10 of store credit at the venue: the Buyer’s Best Friend Wholesale and Mercantile store (on Haight St at Cole). My $10 went straight to Madecasse.
  • GreenLife Smoothies: these guys were handing out green smoothie samplers, super fresh and tasty.

I also got a chance to catch up with a few food entrepreneur friends. Check out their growing businesses:

More food startups meetup events are in the works. Stay tuned on the group’s events page: http://www.meetup.com/FoodStartups/

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Wild Kitchen dinner with ForageSF

I first heard and wrote about the Forage Kitchen in June when I saw founder Iso Rabins speak at a food startups panel. To summarize briefly, Iso envisions Forage Kitchen as “a hub for the SF Bay Area food community” including an incubator, a co-working space, a rental kitchen, a microbrewery, a meat curing facility, a café and retail space, a rooftop garden, and more.

The setting for Thursday’s dinner

Iso used Kickstarter to kick-off the funding for the kitchen and successfully raised $156,000 which he’ll supplement with future funding rounds. I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and in exchange received two tickets to a special Wild Kitchen dinner this past Thursday night. It was the first of Iso’s dinners I’ve attended and it was pretty special. It was held in an unmarked building on Mission at 8th. The menu featured local ingredients foraged by Iso and his team: he gathered the sea beans himself in Western Marin. His friend and volunteer had picked all the nasturtium and eucalyptus leaves herself. I was amazed they managed to pull off such a delicious, local, sustainable dinner for so many people at once. If you want to be in the loop on future Wild Kitchen dinners sign up for their mailing list here.

Highlights from the night were the porcini bisque, the chanterelle and lobster mushroom stuffing, and the eucalyptus popsicles, along with interesting conversation with the new friend sitting around us.

Iso will be hosting a brainstorming event soon to get ideas from the community for the layout and design of the kitchen. I’ll post the info on my events tab once I have. Stay tuned.

The evening’s menu

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