Last week, Target told several of its top suppliers, like Campbell Soup and General Mills, that it will be allocating more time and money to promoting its healthier partners. Earlier this month, Kraft said that it’s ditching its Mac N Cheese’s signature neon orange for a more natural ingredient. And McDonald’s started selling kale.
“What’s going on in the Good Food market in just the past three months is insane,” said Jim Slama, President and Founder of Family Farmed, a Chicago-based non-profit committed to locally grown, responsibly produced food. “The opportunity is mind boggling.”
Slama defines ‘Good Food’ as anything that’s “sustainable, close to home, and humane.” (As a category, it’s a little more inclusive than organic, accounting for 9% of all food produced in the U.S. against the latter’s 5%). And with some of the world’s biggest brands buying into the Good Food movement, it has created a massive need for more businesses, farms, and products that support a local, sustainable supply chain.
However, the food industry isn’t like the tech space; a farm can’t just “pivot” in order to address a trending opportunity. A Good Food business needs time to, yes, grow.
That’s why Slama and Family Farmed launched the Good Food Business Accelerator (GFBA), the country’s first incubator specifically for businesses that support this movement, whether it’s a food safety startup, an organic food brand, or a farm. The accelerator just wrapped up its first six-month program and is in the process of sourcing applications for round two.
“The food space is different,” said Slama. “You can’t just make a product and release it to the wild hoping to attract customers. You need to get in front of the right buyers and you need to get it on the right shelves.”
Slama, who also founded the Good Food Festival in 2005, understands the value of these relationships. The festival, which is now in its 11th year and features over 5,000 attendees and 150 exhibitors, was created to connect farms, products, and brands to suppliers, stores, and buyers. This year’s event also included several prominent local politicians like Governor Bruce Rauner, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
But outside of connections, Good Food businesses, like all startups, need financing to survive.
After six months in the GFBA, Slama is confident that these members, complete with a business plan and a market development strategy, are at a place where they can start to secure funding. “That’s what we’re mostly focused on – getting deals done for our members.” Slama is encouraged by the state of ‘food capital’ in the city, mentioning a couple stealth funds that are dedicated solely to the food and beverage sectors.
“When it comes to food investing, there’s this concept of ‘slow money,'” said Slama, which is the understanding that though a food venture may not yield a fast return, it carries a “fiduciary responsibility.” Slama knows this better than anyone and helped launch the Good Food Financing and Innovation Conference, an event dedicated to helping Good Food entrepreneurs and family farmers connect to capital. (In fact, the first fest actually had Woody Tasch, the author of Slow Money, as a keynote). In the GFBA, Slama helps its members refine their core and pitch in order to appeal to these investors. “It’s a different pool, you need to know how to speak to them.”
The Good Food Business Accelerator, which has its teams meet once a week for half a year, operates out of 1871. When the innovation hub’s CEO Howard Tullman announced his intention to run niche incubators within the space, Slama immediately pitched him on the idea of Family Farmed powering a food one.
“It was actually pretty serendipitous,” said Slama. “We held our first Good Food Festival at Kendall College when Howard ran it; it was great to be able to work together again.”
In April, the GFBA’s 9 fellows presented at the accelerator’s inaugural Demo Days. The accelerator’s first class includes Jakobs Brothers Farms, a farm and ranch 120 miles from downtown Chicago, Spark of the Heart, a maker of dried bean-based soup mixes and side dishes, and Food Trace, a provider of software for food sourcing and mapping. In April, Food Trace was selected to be a Google Entrepreneur in Residence, receiving $40,000, office space, and resources from the search giant.
And though the next class won’t get started until the Fall, Slama is still hard at work on the accelerator’s mission. “Right now, we’re just trying to learn what investors want and what they’re looking for so that we can get better at matchmaking for this second round of fellows.”
For the Good Food movement and its supporters, that’s good news.