Making “Good” Food is Good Business: Forging a New Path by Chef Julia Kendrick Conway

This year’s San Francisco Winter Fancy Food Show with the Specialty Food Association was a whirlwind of taste.  Big trends for 2017 were snacks (both clean and conventional), coconut anything, fermented products and purpose driven companies.  The producer demographics have changed significantly over the last four years, with the average age of new company founders somewhere south of thirty.  Of course, there were the usual myriad of corporate booths, international sections and large distributors, but the news this year was all about the new and upcoming food startups.

Much of the buzz centered around “upcycling” which is the practice of using items or ingredients once consigned to the waste stream to produce viable consumer products.  In the case of ReGrained, a producer of snack bars; this manifests as collecting spent malted barley from urban microbreweries in the San Francisco Bay area, and manufacturing snack bars.  Their slogan “Eat Beer” and their t-shirt army of millennials garnered quite a bit of attention from buyers and media alike.  The company produces two bars, Honey-Almond IPA and Chocolate-Coffee Stout.  While incorporating the flavors of the brewing process in the bars, there is no alcohol used in the manufacturing, making them a safe snack, even for children.

The founders, Jordan and Dan, were home brewers in college, and were appalled at the amount of waste the process of brewing generated.  While breweries in rural areas funnel their spent grains to the composting and agricultural industries (as fertilizer and animal feed, especially for pigs), their urban counterparts were forced to have it hauled away as garbage.  The grain is high in protein and fiber, as well as naturally low in sugars and starches, which have been fermented away in the brewing process.  ReGrained’s goal is to close the circle from farm to grain to brewery to food.  It is their intention to expand the product line to include flours, cookies, and other baked goods.  As stated on their website, “Our vision is to enable urban ecosystems to do more with less through creativity and innovation.  With every decision, we seek to positively impact the community and the planet in which we live and run our business.”  This purpose driven business philosophy extends to their packaging, which is “backyard compostable” meaning it breaks down through moisture and exposure to light rather than having to be ground and processed.  The clear envelopes that wrap the bars are made of a cellulose derivative, similar to rayon, which has languished in obscurity since the development of cheaper (and more ecologically damaging) plastics.  The packages are printed with non-toxic vegetable based inks and sealed with a compostable coating.

Their story went viral at the show, and the media lined up.  They were named one of the “Six Startups to Watch” from both the show and the Good Food Guild Marketplace, held the day before the show opened.  Most people think of food businesses as staid and conventional, but this company has a stronger resemblance to a tech start up than to a “mom and pop” food business.  I knew the nature of the business had changed when Rabobank’s investment bankers were cruising the show (suits, pocket squares and all) and stopped by to chat about the next round of venture financing needed to take the company to the next level.  Already backed by a food incubator and a mentor from the industry that was also a primary angel investor, these young men were primed for a quantum leap.

The moral of the story seems to be that you can do well by doing good.  Every business decision the company makes takes into consideration its impact on the environment and the community.  If it doesn’t make sense in terms of their core values, they won’t do it, including consideration of what retail outlets they choose to pursue.  I have recently become acquainted with a group of companies called B-Corporations.  These companies, which undergo an extensive audit process that monitors their impacts on the environment and the community at large, are awarded the status of “Benefit Corporation”.  Everything is evaluated, from recycling to employee benefits to philanthropy and scored against a 200-point scale.  Championing a corporate culture of service over profit, these companies are an example of what can happen when a business aligns their efforts for a greater good.  The upside is that, at least in California, these companies have a marketplace advantage in an age when the consumer is increasingly focused on how the companies they buy from conduct their businesses.

As consumers, are we ready to embrace a new way of making our buying decisions?  As a chef, I am constantly weighing the relative cost of using local suppliers, regional procurement, seasonal ingredients and practices.  As a business owner, I choose to pay my team a little more in order to contribute toward a living wage for food service and hospitality workers.  As a member of the community, I choose to support the arts, local non-profits and like-minded partners.  This is not a goal to be reached, a milestone to log, but an ongoing process to build an interdependent community of producers and purchasers where both can benefit.  Whether you are a seasoned veteran in the industry or the starry-eyed founder of the hottest new start-up, we can all collaborate to make our workplaces, our industry and our communities a better place for all.

 

Story and Images by Chef Julia Kendrick Conway of Assaggiare Mendocino

For more in her series, click A Chef’s Journey

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