How The Good Food Accelerator Helps Fellows Clear Hurdles
By Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Success in building a startup food business is about seizing opportunities. But it is also about overcoming obstacles. Of the 35 businesses that graduated from FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator (GFA) program over its first four years, 33 have weathered those sometimes stormy seas, and some have achieved robust growth.
Four recent graduates of the Accelerator — Shibani Baluja of Lil’ Gourmets, Mark Muller of ready to BRANDS, Ali Cole of The Farinata Project, and Adriana Saldaña-Meadath of Flùr — took part on September 6 in a panel that focused on tackling the challenges that came their way. The panel was part of GFA’s Application Celebration, aimed at persuading entrepreneurs in the audience to take the plunge and apply for the program’s fifth cohort, which begins in November.
[NOTE: The application deadline is TONIGHT (Thursday, September 13) at 11:59 p.m. Visit the Good Food Accelerator site to apply.]
All four graduate Fellows wrestled with serious business issues, but none as existential as that confronted by Saldaña-Meadath. The gluten-free baked goods she created for Flùr as a pastry chef were delicious and had serious market potential, but a rift with her business partner became irreparable, and she was determined to extract herself without losing the business.
Fortunately, this occurred during her tenure as a member of the second Good Food Accelerator cohort (2015-16). The resources from which she benefited saved the day, and her business.
Citing Bob Dekker of Insight Advisory Partners — her GFA mentor who referenced her situation during a mentors panel held earlier on September 6 — Saldana-Meadath said, “I’m very thankful I was in the program because this group gave me the support I needed. Otherwise I would have basically broken down and called it quits. They gave me the support and helped me find the strength to keep going.” [Read about the insights from the mentors panel on Good Food News.]
“I would not have known how to get through that breakup with a partner. But we’re still here. We’re surviving,” she said of Flùr, which is based in the western Chicago suburb of Riverside.
Baluja dealt with serial problems finding a co-manufacturer who could get her product right. Like Saldaña-Meadath, these issues again fortuitously came to a head while she was part of the Accelerator’s fourth cohort (which completed the intensive six-month program in April 2018).
Baluja’s Lil’ Gourmets makes fresh, full-flavored, nutritious baby foods using high-pressure pasteurization, a developing technology that can be quirky. “There’s a lot of people purport to know a lot about it, but it’s really hit or miss as to who actually is an expert,” Baluja said. “It’s really nice to have the mentors who can really guide and help us with our challenges.” [Baluja’s mentor is Dave Donnan, global food and beverage lead for the A.T. Kearney business management consulting firm, who recently joined FamilyFarmed’s board of directors.]
She continued, “I spent a couple of years with a manufacturer who I ended up having to leave. All this happened during the time of the Accelerator. With the team here, I was able to find a new manufacturer and get set up and get going and actually get our product to market, which had been delayed for months and months and months.” Baluja’s official product launch came at FamilyFarmed’s Good Food EXPO in March 2018, a month before she graduated from the Accelerator.
[Editor’s note: Congratulations to Shibani Baluja, whose Lil’ Gourmets won Best In Show at the 2018 Chicago Baby Show.]
Muller also first engaged a public audience with ready to BRANDS’ nausea relief product at the EXPO. But he first undertook a major rebranding and redefinition of his company with the aid of the Accelerator and his mentor, Mike Schopin of Zenfinity Capital — a journey previously documented by FamilyFarmed in stories published on Aug. 6 and yesterday (Sept. 12).
Muller developed the product, made of all-natural ingredients, after his pregnant wife was afflicted with a rare and severe form of morning sickness and found no over-the-counter products that provided satisfactory results, some of which could have produced additional health risks. But Schopin persuaded Muller that his original plan to market the product narrowly as morning sickness relief would have appealed to too small a market, making financial success unlikely.
“He helped open our eyes for that much larger opportunity, without compromising anything with our initial market segment. The impact was positioning ourselves with the best foot forward for economic growth and feasibility,” Muller said, adding, “Now we have the potential to be a national brand and we’re much better positioned for that, not only for this particular product, but we have much more of a platform where we could introduce additional products that offer closer-to-nature, cleaner, more effective alternatives to what’s currently out there in the OTC aisle.”
Cole also “pivoted” based on advice she received as a Fellow in the fourth Accelerator cohort. Her original product was a chickpea flour flatbread in three flavors, based on a traditional Italian recipe. Her problem: People said that the flatbreads were tasty, but didn’t know what to do with them. The solution: turn the flatbreads into crusts for frozen pizza, a product with mass consumer appeal.
“I went through a whole evolution, talking with different mentors and talking with people in the program to get there. I can now feel this product is positioned to go nationally and really be understood by the public,” Cole said. Cole’s personal mentor is Daniel Caballero of Sofrito Foods, a 2017 Accelerator grad who contributed an essay about his experience that Good Food News published Sept. 11.
And Cole hit upon the word that is the glue that holds the widespread Good Food Accelerator network together: community. “This is an amazing community of people,” she said. “Your cohort, the people who are mentoring you, the speakers. The wealth of knowledge you can access from this opportunity, I don’t have words for. It’s been life-changing for me, the relationships both inside and outside the cohort.”
If you are a rising Good Food entrepreneur, you still have time to apply for the next Good Food Accelerator cohort… but the clock is ticking down to the deadline at 11:59 p.m. tonight. Please visit the Accelerator website to apply.
Good Food Accelerator