NEW YORK — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) ravaged New York City in late March, area food entrepreneurs wanted to provide healthy snacks and beverages to the hospital staff, whose options were seemingly limited to stale coffee and vending machine fare. Cole Riley, a budding marketer with shallow roots in the local packaged food scene, launched nonprofit Founders Give to collect and distribute products to health care workers throughout the pandemic’s most scorching hotspot.
Within two months, the initiative has provided 1.6 million snacks and beverages from nearly 300 brands at 47 hospitals. Participating companies range from small makers of kombucha and cold-brew coffee to larger businesses, including Chobani and Kind Healthy Snacks.
Mr. Riley, a lawyer-turned-yogurt-startup-founder (who has since abandoned the yogurt business), last year created a platform called Founders Market to spotlight the entrepreneurs behind New York’s up-and-coming food brands. Plans changed when the virus barreled in.
“In the middle of March, specifically March 20, I saw some of these brands and founders I came to know really well were having problems getting their products into hospitals for donation,” Mr. Riley said. “I thought, what happens if you bring them together, act as a distributor, approach these hospital systems and individual hospitals as one voice representing X amount of products, X amount of brands, maybe we’ll have better luck meeting those minimum requirements, coordinating with loading docks and operations teams, and at the end of the day getting product into the hands of health care workers.”
He rallied several brands he knew from his previous project and obtained warehouse space and a truck. The effort snowballed into the city’s largest food drive, attracting interest from brands outside of New York and even outside of the food and beverage industry, as companies joined to donate bedsheets, deodorant and socks.
“I’ve become the No. 1 distributor of snacks and drinks in the hospitals, donated or otherwise,” Mr. Riley said. “Hospitals stopped placing orders in early April for regular food orders. They were running out of money. So, I’ve become in many facilities the only source of food coming in.”
Founders Give has expanded to two warehouses and four trucking companies. Mr. Riley singlehandedly runs the operation, communicating with every hospital and brand, building the inventory reports and packing lists. (He also handles his own media requests).
“Every night before the next day’s scheduled deliveries, I reach out to each brand and their founder directly to let them know where their product is heading: one pallet to Mount Sinai, 40 cases to NYU Langone, 6 skids to Metropolitan,” he said. “That type of transparency doesn’t happen in nonprofits.”
The founders of Lupii, a brand of plant-based snacks featuring high-protein lupini beans, joined the effort early. Isabelle Steichen and Alexandra Dempster previously met Mr. Riley through Founders Market.
“Not only was he able to tap into the community of small and large CPG businesses, but he also managed to set up the complex logistics of delivering over a million food products to over 100,000 health care workers within just a few weeks," Ms. Steichen said. “As a new plant-based snack company, it’s been very important to us to support people in getting healthy and nutritious food during this crisis. It’s been rewarding to see the tangible impact and pictures of nurses and doctors holding Lupii and other food products that help fuel them during their hours at the hospitals. We know exactly where our donations go and who benefits from them. It’s a pretty unique initiative, and it’s been so rewarding partnering up with a fellow entrepreneur who has a growth mindset and makes a real impact.”
The pandemic has forced many to change plans and adapt to a permanently altered reality, in many cases, with devastating consequences. For Mr. Riley, the virus has imbued new purpose and meaning in his efforts to elevate small business owners.
“There’s an opportunity to take what we’ve been doing in New York with hospitals, expand on it gradually, focus on the CPG brands and founders, make it as easy as possible to give, and I really believe if you bring this community together as a streamlined nonprofit … we can make a huge impact,” Mr. Riley said.