Start Me Up

BY STEVE HOLT

Since opening in early January 2017, Oat Shop on College Avenue in Somerville has been ladling up bowlfuls of hot oatmeal garnished with everything from traditional berries and granola to savory sweet potatoes and coconut curry. “Boston’s first oatmeal café” opened to rave reviews, drawing eaters from across the city with its creative takes on an American breakfast standard.

It’s hard to imagine, but just one year before the grand opening of its brick-and-mortar café, Oat Shop was merely an idea in the mind of Alan Donovan. It was then, in January 2016, that Donovan first brought this notion to a weekly lunchtime entrepreneurial roundtable at Babson College called Food Sol. Here Donovan casually pitched his idea for an oatmeal-centric café. Over the next several months, the community he met at Food Sol helped him finalize his menu, offered feedback on branding and messaging and even planted the initial seed for him to test the café concept with a popup in Brookline.

“It was important that I prove we could sell oatmeal even during the summer months and even out of someone else’s space with little signage,” Donovan says, recalling the successful popup. 
“This popup gave me great feedback and gave me the confidence to move forward on a lease.”

Across the nation and here in Massachusetts, individuals like Donovan are taking ideas and turning them into products and businesses that meet needs and solve problems in the food and agriculture space. Billions of dollars have been invested in the food sector, turning sometimes-simple ideas into household names. But as with new companies in general, statistically, most food startups fail—many before they’ve served their first customer. To avoid joining the ranks of the unsuccessful, many founders and would-be entrepreneurs are rejecting the long-held code of secrecy around new business ideas and turning to one another for advice and support along the journey.

Since 2010, many students and early-stage entrepreneurs have found themselves in at Babson, sitting around Food Sol’s “Community Table.” Oat Shop’s Donovan says that in the months he was finalizing his business plan, the Tuesday lunchtime roundtable in Wellesley was the only recurring appointment on his calendar.

On a recent Tuesday, I see why so many have found Community Table to be indispensible in forming their food businesses. As a few dozen students and would-be entrepreneurs nibble on slices from Rail Trail Flatbread Co., the company’s founders—Karim El-Gamal and Michael Kasseris—are sitting with them, sharing their origin story and lessons learned starting their business. A student asks El-Gamal and Kasseris how they handled hiring for their first location. Another attendee asks how they settled on their location on Main Street in Hudson in the first place.

“You can have a great concept in the wrong town, and it’ll really hurt you,” Kasseris replies. “Value-add relationships are always the best. Find a landlord that is going to be interested in your concept or business.” 

No question is off the table for the two founders, who seem eager to recommend a specific point-of-sale system or share the actual percentage of Rail Trail’s budget they put back
into marketing (it’s less than 4%, all spent on community advertising and sponsorships).

Rail Trail is one in a growing list of local businesses whose trajectory has been shaped and inspired by Food Sol and its co-founders Rachel Greenberger and Cheryl Kiser. The founders of brands such as 88 Acres, Mainley Burgers and Farmer’s Crate found themselves around the Community Table at Babson before their businesses took off, Greenberger says. She says the impetus for Community Table, which launched with Food Sol in 2011, came from inefficiencies she observed in “business culture” that require budding entrepreneurs to conduct one-on-one meeting after one-on-one meeting. The crowd—including the one she facilitates every Tuesday—could offer an aspiring or established food entrepreneur just as much as, or even more than, one meeting with a business professor.

“There’s so much learning that can happen that is pre-competitive or non-competitive,” says Greenberger, who earned her MBA in food system innovation from Babson in 2011. “So I’m constantly trying to push people into the crowd and say, ‘Crowdsource from this group, all of whom have industry expertise or a ton of desire. I will help you, and I can, but I also want you to know that everyone around you can help you, too.’”

As the hour-long Community Table conversation wraps up, I catch up with Vivian Fond, a Babson sophomore from La Jolla, California. She calls herself a “big foodie” and says she’d eventually love to start her own business—possibly a marketing company or restaurant. She’s been attending Community Table religiously for more than a year and has found a community that is refreshingly egalitarian.

“To be treated as an equal [at Community Table], and as somebody with the same amount of creativity and ideas, that’s what brought me to Babson,” she says.

Audrey Scagnelli, who moved to Boston in May from Washington, D.C., is a bit further on in her business development. All the MBA candidate will tell me is that it’s a “consumer packaged good,” crediting Greenberger with having introduced her to people who are helping her think about her business differently. She’s found Boston’s soil for food businesses to be “very robust” and reflective of a national movement.

“I’d be willing to guess that if you look in the past decade, the conversation we’re having [about changing food systems] wouldn’t have happened,” she says.

INNOVATING AND COLLABORATING IN THE NEW FOOD ECONOMY
The 16th floor of the Cambridge Innovation Center, at 50 Milk St. in Boston’s financial district, buzzes with food entrepreneurship. This is the social-media nerve center for a rapidly growing
e-commerce platform for supermarkets. And the United States headquarters for a Brazil-based mobile cattle-tracking technology. And the marketing hub for an author promoting her first book, about the mindfulness of eating.

This is BranchFood, a for-profit co-working community of food innovators—New England’s largest, they say. BranchFood offers its members more than a desk, facilitating regular classes and workshops, focus groups, job fairs and food product showcases to help entrepreneurs scale their businesses to the next level.

Lauren Abda is BranchFood’s enthusiastic and über-connected founder. She works every day to bring Boston alongside food business hubs like San Francisco, Boulder and Brooklyn—buoyed by the city’s academic and investment assets, its history of producing food companies like Marshmallow Fluff and Hood Milk and a demographic profile that features one of the country’s largest concentrations of Millennials. In fact, Abda views this lofty mission almost as a personal challenge.

“The value in what we do, in many cases, is knowing Boston; we know the city,” she tells me across BranchFood’s conference table. “We know where to go. We know where those food-focused programs are. We know who the people are at those companies that want to work with startups. We know where Millennials shop. And we know the people that fund everything. That takes time to really make that community.”

BranchFood’s co-working community is its heart and soul. Nestled within the larger Cambridge Innovation Center’s co-working building downtown, BranchFood’s group and individual desks, longer tables for “floating” workers and conference rooms occupy one-fourth of the 16th floor. Business owners and individuals can choose which type of workspace they prefer, and then pay accordingly. All members get access to the building’s amenities, including a gym and fully stocked kitchen, but the real value, members say, is in the personal and professional connections that are formed. Every member can attend BranchFood events—including a weekly Community Table luncheon and special conversations with entrepreneurs—free of charge, and Abda even added a membership plan for those who want the professional connections but don’t need the workspace on a daily basis.

Willem Meyer sets up his laptop daily at one of BranchFood’s long, shared tables. The investment firm he founded—South-Africa-based Campitor Investments—funds and connects food and agriculture companies in both the U.S. and Africa. He chose Boston as his firm’s U.S. outpost because of its relative ease of travel to Africa, its European feel, the abundance of African students here—and its budding food startup scene.

“We want to build a bridge between here and there,” Meyer tells me. “It’s great being part of the community here and seeing how things develop, meeting other people in the food chain and learning about the ecosystem of different providers and companies.”

A few feet away at another long table is Heather Sears, whose first book—Mind to Mouth: A Busy Chick’s Guide to Mindful Mealtime Moments—came out in November 2017. Besides writing, she uses the space to run a small kitchenware business. But it’s being around so many kindred spirits that puts the biggest smile on Sears’s face when asked to describe BranchFood.

“It’s amazing being here, being part of the energy, something that’s moving—moving life, moving the economy, moving Boston forward,” she says.

Abda is BranchFood’s engine, connector and no small part of the for-profit business’s success. The UVM and Tufts Friedman School graduate always had an interest in nutrition and food policy, but “drank the startup Kool-Aid” during a Boston internship with the small business accelerator TechStars. As a graduate student she began to connect with others who were interested in the business of food, founding Tufts Food Works—which would become Tufts Business Link. Similar to Food Sol, the Tufts group brought in private sector food innovators—like Boston Organics, the Fair Food Fund and Taza Chocolate—to meet with students.

In 2013, she created a group on the networking site Meetup.com for fellow food enthusiasts and tech entrepreneurs—an early iteration of what would become BranchFood. The group’s early events were packed. She says it was then that she knew this was the world—“nebulous” as it may have been—in which she wanted to work and create.

“I thought, there’s an interesting community here,” she reflects. “Beyond the farm community, beyond the restaurant community, there are some people who are working on really interesting products, services, very early stage technology—all related to food.”

BranchFood’s star rose over the next few years through its well-crafted networking events, its sponsorship of food conferences and roundtables, and, of course, co-working space. But it may soon be known as a leading financial accelerator of small food businesses as well. Branch Venture Group—co-founded by Abda, Marcia Hooper of Salt Venture Partners and investor-entrepreneur Julia Paino—is Boston’s newest angel network for investment in early-stage food product, food technology and agricultural technology products. Even when great brands and products are being created in the region, it’s this early-stage funding, Abda says, that is often missing from the entrepreneurship equation. She adds that Branch Venture Group will only accept accredited investors, with a strong preference for those with food industry experience.

“If you’ve worked at Wegman’s for 40 years, you’ll know how that product gets on that shelf, and you’ll know how to talk to a company about that and what questions to ask,” she says.

IT STARTS WITH DESIRE
Beyond the news headlines, dreams of dollar signs, and festive startup atmosphere, would-be entrepreneurs still must grapple with a harsh reality: Most startups are bound to fail. Add to that the slim margins in many food-related businesses, and you have long odds for success—unless they have the unquenchable desire to see it through to the end. This is where Babson’s Rachel Greenberger starts with students and outside entrepreneurs who come to her with an idea for a new food business: “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What do I know? Who do I know?’ and, ‘How can I begin to build resources?’”

In many ways, Food Sol and BranchFood are the very answer to Greenberger’s rhetorical questions. Both—fueled by the fiercely networked, whip-smart, wonky women who run them—are building in their entrepreneurs the knowledge, toughness and connections to see fun ideas through to serious profits. These entrepreneurs, in turn, are poised to lead a small business revolution in Boston that could transform the way Americans eat for decades to come.

STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.