It turns out there’s an upside to us Americans constantly stuffing our faces: there is a lot of money to be made in the food industry. So-called “foodpreneurs” are simply enterprising people jumping on the lucrative opportunities presented by new diets, trends, and tastes. We’ve made our picks for the best of those folks this year, based on their success (achieved or forecasted), their creativity, and their social consciousness. (We favored new to newish companies, because who really needs another article telling them how great Howard Schultz is?) Order up!
Photograph by Jason Fulford for Bloomberg Businessweek
- Michael Evans and Matt Maloney of GrubHub:Now in its ninth year of existence and with $84 million in capital, GrubHub can hardly be referred to as a startup anymore, as it was when it won the University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge in 2006. The company provides a platform for finding restaurants that offer takeout and allowing diners to place orders. Now GrubHub has made it into the Inc. 500 list, and it’s all thanks to Mssrs. Evans and Maloney. The two software engineers quit promising jobs to start the company, and though it now services more than 13,000 restaurants, the first month Evans made a salary of $140. The pair uses Craigslist exclusively to find employees, because they feel those are the candidates with an “entrepreneurial mindset,” and they’ve taken on so many people that in 2012 they moved into their fourth office in a few short years.
- Jonathan Lewis and Elisa Lewis of Pastoral Plate:Similar to GrubHub, Pastoral Plate is concerned with connecting eaters with food. The difference is the type of food: father and daughter team the Lewises scout local farms and function as a distributor of grass-fed, humanely raised meat. Customers then have access to a wide range of seasonal products that they can buy online. And unlike other meat co-ops, customers can choose the cuts they want. The enterprise was born after Jonathan sold some meat from a grass-fed cow for a friend, and his friends gobbled up all he had. Despite national attention, Jonathan says he has no interest in becoming a giant meat distributor. He’s content to help people take responsibility for themselves and for their food.
- Mateo Kehler and Andy Kehler of Cellars at Jasper Hill:Upon being named an honoree by the Martha Stewart American Made Awards, Mateo Kehler described the business model for the Cellars as “basically dig a big hole, dump in money, and bury it.” The hole would be a 22,000-square-foot network of cutting-edge, climate-controlled caves where the brothers age 80,000 pounds of artisanal cheese a year. Not only does the pair oversee the production of their own high-quality cheese, but the caves serve as a way for local Vermont dairy producers to add value to their goods that otherwise have been impossible.
- Mark da Silva, Bill da Silva, John O’Connell, Tony Lane, and Piero Broccardo of Growler Station:Beer drinkers, rejoice; these guys are here to revolutionize the way you get your brews. For the uninitiated, a growler is a basically a big bottle for selling craft beer to-go. In response to customers unhappy over the life of their to-go beers, the pub-owning da Silva brothers located a Russian growler system that could extend the life of a bottled craft beer … as in, from a few days to a few months. With the help of the other three, they’ve opened the Growler Station, offering draft beers in both reusable and recyclable growlers. So far, earnings have been steadily increasing 15% each week, and the team is in talks to start licensing kiosks known as Growler Station Express.
- Arram Sabeti of ZeroCater:Every day around noon Pacific time, Silicon Valley workers from the offices of Dropbox, TechCrunch, eBay, and hundreds more turn their eyes anxiously to the door to await the arrival of their lunch, courtesy of ZeroCater. Having been the guy in charge of ordering food for the startup he worked for, Arram Sabeti realized he could make a living being that guy for other startups, too. The result was his company that asks companies how often they want catered food, what their dietary restrictions are, and how many people they’re feeding, then takes care of the rest. Restaurants love ZeroCater because they handle all those fussy, time-consuming details. With $1.5 million in new investment capital, Sabeti is primed to take his operation nationwide.
- Matthew Corrin of Freshii:Greasy New York delis would be enough to make anyone long for fresh food, but Matthew Corrin went beyond simply dreaming. In 2005, he opened make-your-own salad restaurant Lettuce with $250,000 of loans from friends and family, without any prior restaurant experience, as other than a customer, that is. Two years and nine stores later, Corrin rebranded the store as Freshii and targeted it toward the “health casual” niche, which he had just invented. Fast forward five years and Freshii has gone big-time, with an estimated $50 million in sales in 2011 and plenty of accolades for its enterprising founder.
- Veni Harlan and Hansel Harlan of Marsh Dog:The gourmet dog treat market has seen a meteoric rise in demand in recent years, as pet owners spare no expense in their quest to provide their “children” organic, chemical-free, even vegan dog-treats. But siblings Veni and Hansel Harlan are not only creating canine cuisine with their Marsh Dogs, they’re helping solve an ecological problem in their local Louisiana wetlands. The treats are made of nutria, a creature our southern readers will recognize as basically a giant water rat. The invasive species decimates plant life, harming the wetlands. Marsh Dog turns the pest into locally-sourced, all-natural puppy snacks that have proven a hit with Cajun fidos.
- Erika Allen of Growing Power, Inc.:Who says non-profits can’t be entrepreneurial? Growing Power was also a winner of an American Made award, in the “Community” category. Like many on this list, it’s another family affair — Erika is the son of Will Allen, a Milwaukee farmer who started Growing Power in 1993 as a place for teens to have jobs growing food for the community. She continues the tradition today, although under her direction the one farm has swelled to eight and there is a national organization now, which helps teach both kids and adults how to create and maintain a sustainable food system.
- Iso Rabins of Forage Kitchen:San Francisco is a notorious hotbed of “foodies” (food snobs, to the layman), and for a business to be one of the most talked-about food news stories in town is a pretty big deal. Founder Iso Rabins envisions Forage Kitchen as a food startup … for food startups. More than just a rental kitchen, for just under $100 a month it will offer everything a budding foodpreneur needs to get a small business off the ground, from office space to tools to permit consulting. Using Kickstarter, Rabins has received $150,000 in startup dough (c’mon, we had to use it at some point) and is in the process of securing a building.
- Steve Liberati of Steve’s Original:Unless your role model for health is Homer Simpson, you’ve probably heard of CrossFit and the Paleo Diet, two of the hottest diet and exercise trends of recent memory. Many who practice one also do the other, making a product that targets both pure genius. Enter Steve Liberati. Scroll through any CrossFit web forum or Paleo blog and you will inevitably see his Steve’s Original PaleoKits pop up as a recommendation. Liberati landed on the grass-fed and free-range snacks in 2010 in his search for “clean, real food.” He uses the sales to fund Steve’s Club, a CrossFit program for at-risk youth.