CHICAGO — The Good Food Business Accelerator in Chicago is changing the way innovation takes place in the competitive food and beverage space. The G.F.B.A. provides innovative “good food” entrepreneurs with mentorship, technical assistance and networking opportunities with potential investors. The group’s goal is to help start-ups bring their creations successfully to market.
Established by Jim Slama, founder of the start-up business FamilyFarmed, G.F.B.A. participants have sold hundreds of millions of dollars in new products to such wholesale buyers as Whole Foods, McCormick Place, Chicago Public Schools and more. In addition to its presence in Chicago, FamilyFarmed operates a farmer training program that has educated more than 12,500 farmers in 42 states on the topics of food safety, post-harvest handling and building relationships with buyers.
Good food is all about being locally, sustainably, humanely and fairly produced, Mr. Slama explained at a recent G.F.B.A. event at Kendall College, Chicago. He highlighted Chicago’s leadership role in the good food cluster. Attendees heard firsthand from local food entrepreneurs and sampled their food innovations.
Speaking at the event was Natalie Shmulik, director of The Hatchery Chicago, which is a non-profit food and beverage incubator created to help entrepreneurs launch and grow their business. The Hatchery offers a suite of services, including access to financing, production space and resources.
|Natalie Shmulik, director of The Hatchery Chicago
“The Hatchery has partnered with highly reputable service providers, consumer packaged goods companies, supermarkets, restaurant groups and marketers to lower barriers of entry for their members,” Ms. Shmulik said. “A new 67,000-square-foot facility, which is being deemed the Silicon Valley for food and beverage, is expected to open in 2018. With a mission of economic growth, 900 new jobs are expected to be created within the first few years of opening.”
An example of a business that G.F.B.A. provided assistance is Fruitbelt. This women-owned company based in Sawyer, Mich., markets a namesake fruit-based carbonated beverage described as an “orchard in a bottle.”
“It’s a local, sustainably/responsibly sourced product,” said Beth Denton, co-owner. “We launched more than a year ago and did well as an emerging brand in Michigan. We are in three Whole Foods, three Plum Markets and a number of smaller natural grocers and select independent food service.”
Along with Michele Gazzolo, co-owner and chief executive officer, the two have spent the past five months as fellows of the G.F.B.A. The tools provided are assisting the company with expanding distribution to the broader Midwest region.
“The G.F.B.A. is a great way to spring into a new area,” Ms. Denton said. “There are lots of resources. We had the chance to listen to and ask questions of all kinds of people in the good food space – from distributors to supply chain professionals to many University of Chicago Booth School of Business grads. The latter helped us with financial modeling and projections.”
Fruitbelt made its debut in two varieties and more are in the pipeline to launch later this year. Crisp Apple is apple juice with lime and caraway and Bright Cherry is cherry juice with ginger juice.
“Both highlight an orchard ecosystem,” Ms. Denton said. “We use our own bitters in every bottle. It contains heirloom apples, chicory and dandelion roots, and propolis (from bees). This really is the heart of Fruitbelt and highlights the flora of the orchard.
“We sweeten the beverage with native honey because, well, it’s great tasting and highlights the orchard pollinators. I’m a beekeeper, so this is important for me. The honey comes right from where the apples are picked.”
The heirloom apples are harvested from an orchard in Eau Claire, Mich., and the tart cherries from Traverse City, Mich. The company promotes how local businesses are supporting each other and the community.
“Local is a buzzword these days because many people want to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” Ms. Denton said. “Deeper down it is something much more gratifying. It’s about creating a system that enlivens the local economy.
“When people create things and sell it to their neighbors or people in town, it keeps the resources alive locally, which in turn creates a very lively food scenes.”
Megan Klein, president of Carol Stream, Ill.-based Here shared her story with attendees. Here manufactures juices, dips and salad dressings.
“Each of our products contains Midwestern produce and supports local farmers,” Ms. Klein said. “We make it here and distribute it only in the Midwest. Every Here product tells an honest story about its relationship to the farmers who grew the ingredients, the team members who made it and the partners who made it possible.”
For example, the kale apple wheatgrass juice contains apples from the Michigan fruit belt, wheatgrass from The Urban Canopy, an indoor growing space in Chicago, and kale also grown in Illinois.
“FamilyFarmed and the G.F.B.A. are incredibly helpful to Here as we are growing the business,” Ms. Klein said. “They connect us with buyers, distributors and a large network of industry professionals.”
Ms. Klein explained that local is good business in food.
“Ninety-six per cent of people would choose local over non-local if given the chance,” she said. “The local food market was a $12 billion market in 2014 and is projected to grow to $20 billion by 2019.
“While most people would buy local if given the chance, 47% of them cannot find it at their local grocer, and when they can find it, it’s often too expensive. Even when local food is affordable and available, people often don’t have the time to cook. Here makes local food convenient and affordable by putting Midwestern produce into convenient, easy to consume items such as juices, dips and dressings.”
Highwood, Ill.-based Full Belly Foods Inc., is yet another testimonial to the G.F.B.A. The company sells artisan pickles and other fermented vegetables that are handcrafted in small batches.
“We use a simple process to create big clean flavors, bright colors and healthy eating,” said Mitch Wasserman, founder. “They are preservative free and contain no artificial flavors, colors or high-fructose corn syrup.“The G.F.B.A. accepted me as a fellow in the 2016 to 2017 cohort,” he said. “The past six months were spent learning from experienced, highly successful entrepreneurs, investors and professionals from virtually every segment of the natural food industry.”