Food + Enterprise Convenes to Increase Capital and Sustainability in the Local Foodshed

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Despite the cold weather, the last weekend in February provided food lovers and entrepreneurs with ample opportunity to stay warm. Crowds gathered at Brooklyn’s Industry City for the 2015 edition of the Food+Enterprise conference. Founded in 2013 as part of Food Book Fair, the conference is geared towards increasing access to capital and sustainability in the New York City foodshed.

Featuring a slew of familiar names including Slow Money, Local Roots NYC, National Young Farmers Coalition alongside food-raisers such as FOOD-X, Barnraiser and Kiva, the conference was an energetic enterprise from the outset. The first day kicked off with best practice workshops overseen by Bard MBA and Food+Tech Connect. Day two started with a speech peppered with quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wendell Berry and John F. Kennedy delivered by Woody Tasch of Slow Money. He presented cautionary tales on everything from environmental mismanagement to the overly metrics-driven corporate world, calling for more “food.ish.iary” relationships between investors and entrepreneurs. That paved the way for panel discussions focusing on the financial aspects of food enterprise ranging from “The Fine Art of the Pitch” to the responsibility businesses can take for building sustainable and healthy environments for their staff. This philosophy was demonstrated with a tasty lunch sponsored by Eatsy, Etsy’s in-house food program, prepared by L’Atelier Vert NYC.

Other participatory events included a tour of Industry City Distillery, strategic roundtable discussions and chocolate ganache workshop at Liddabit Sweets. Finally budding entrepreneurs put their skills to the test on the last day with a pitch competition organized by Barnraiser, Slow Money NYC and Bard MBA in Sustainability followed by food stand and networking arena: the Meetspace. For the pitch competition ten sustainable food businesses pitched to a packed audience to receive feedback, funding and tutelage from KivaZipNYC, Great Performances, Slow Food, Natural Gourmet Institute, Whole Foods. The winners: Made By Lukas, Goldilocks Goodies, Nextdoorganics and With Love From Brooklyn.

True to its mission, the conference explored business growth and funding in all its facets. The perceived need for funding and investment was echoed by Wen-Jay Ying of Local Roots NYC, who looked to Food+Enterprise to “provide [not only the] necessary tools for food entrepreneurs to get their company started but… expose many investors to new, great food businesses… to help promote our local food economy.”

What emerged was clear evidence of a shifting food-funding paradigm. Food investment has hybridized. Entrepreneurs across the country are adopting a combination of new and traditional funding models from the outset. From plucky land-leasing farmers, small-batch producers to tech-centric delivery firms and B-corps, crowdfunding combined with seed investment and backing from traditional finance institutions is the new norm. However in the absence of scalable centralized support for food entrepreneurs, this landscape of co-operative and corporate shareholding has grown complex. Erica Dorn of Slow Money argued for clarity: “It’s clear that… investment and businesses need to be aligned, terms need to be clear and able to support growth.” As a result an increasing number of education and branding hubs, food finance Fagins of sorts, are taking brimming batches of lucky protegés under their wing. The prize? Training, mentorship and some financial backing.

As conferences such as Food+Enterprise show, access to information as much as funding is key. The result: everything is digital… first. Conference caffeine pit-stop Driftaway Coffee with an online storefront managed by two successful marketers is a case in point. By-passing the traditional storefront in lieu of a digital-to-door delivery model and co-op roastery lease, the young business deals with fewer fixed overheads. Digital and funding savvy was demonstrated by some of the established businesses on show. Edible editor-in-chief Brian Halweil and Etsy’s food program, Eatsy, lead Will Robb explored how companies across a range of industries use funds to support better food choices and education for their employees and beyond. 

The digital world brings another obvious advantage; from Facebook or Twitter pages to crowdfunding campaigns social-media savvy millennials are building brand profile from the outset. Forget the handkerchiefs or face-masks, these businesses want to go viral. That trend extends to finding funding. The digital investment model is so popular in fact that Katherine Lynch of KivaZipNYC declared “crowdfunding… the Tinder of investing”. Ensue “retweet” industry acclaim. From pie merchants in search of fixed retail premises on Kickstarter’s dedicated food channel to new retail models like Nextdoorganics seeking to support local producers on Barnraiser, goodwill for good food is now a capital commodity.

In summary, the three-day event was a useful way for businesses across the North East foodshed to share insights, develop business models and seek funding. It was both a heartening and worrying peek into the thriving but complex world of food financing. Social media and the digital world offer a streamlined way for food entrepreneurs to find the information or funding they seek. However the system overall is far from fit-for-purpose. Still the enthusiasm and energy from each organization involved shows that change is underway at every level. Certainly an enterprising state of affairs.

Photo credit: Clay Williams

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