Last Thursday, I had the good fortune to spend the day at Food Funded  – a food entrepreneurship and investor fair — at the stunningly beautiful Presidio in San Francisco.

It was a gathering for those companies and individuals in the early stages of building new food ventures.  The goal was bringing together food entrepreneurs with funders in a sort of “dating game”. I was there to see who the next Bay area up and coming food geniuses are as well as to meet and greet friends old and new.

The morning provided a variety of seminars covering operations, consumer preferences, technology, marketing, funding and investment. So many great choices made it a challenge to choose, but I landed in Responding to Consumer Preferences at the start of the day. That topic is closely aligned with key work we do at Culinary Business Strategy. Consumer preferences may sound like a big fancy word if you are an entrepreneur singularly focused on your beloved product and getting it off the ground, but it’s integral to success. Period. End of sentence.

Here’s the deal — what and why consumers want a product is influenced by so many things – cultural, age, gender, income — and changes over time. Understanding precisely where and how a particular product meets a customer’s need is essential to starting, growing and maintaining a food business. It’s the difference between selling toothpaste and clean teeth. We don’t buy toothpaste. We are buying clean teeth. It’s important to think about what you’re really selling. A full stomach or a unique experience? Your daily allotment of vegetables or a guilty pleasure that happens to be good for you.  A subtle distinction, but one that – in my experience – can make or break a business. As the session ended, each panelist was asked for one thing that is most important in driving consumer preference. There were several good ones, but that one I found myself nodding my head in agreement with was taste. Taste is still paramount- no matter how healthy, organic, sustainable or locally-sourced a product may, taste still reigns supreme.

The Story Behind Your Food: Building Buzz and Community was my second session of the morning, covering a topic that not only fascinates me but I struggle with in terms of my own business. I often get focused on the day to day deliverables and forget the power of telling my own story. Facts and figures are rarely interesting on their own, but with a compelling story we are all on the edge of our seats.  Storytelling can be intimidating, but I think it comes down to a few simple things:

  • Clear away the fluff and get to the good part – your personal drive or passion. That’s the key to your story.
  • Be honest and keep it real – the good, the bad and the ugly. People can relate to a struggle more than everything being perfect.
  • Sometimes you need someone outside of yourself or your business to help articulate that story. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The most exciting part of the day was the entrepreneur presentations in the afternoon. For starters, Bravo! To all the companies that presented their pitch in five minutes.  In those five minutes we heard the nuts and bolts of their mission, vision, current state of the business, goals and money needed to achieve those goals. I’m keeping three in particular on my radar:

The Town Kitchen –  Oakland’s new kid on the block in the world of hybrid food models. The Town Kitchen creates jobs and mentors those who traditionally don’t have access to jobs coming out of county jail. All while creating a delicious catered box lunches. It is a brilliant hybrid of for profit and non-profit and they are growing like gang busters! I am excited to continue to learn more about them.

Big Dipper Baby Food – Wow! They are not the first to create healthy baby food but they are the first to use cold pressure pasteurization, HPP. This process retains all the nutrients that are the point of healthy baby food. It also helps retain great flavor and amazing flavor profiles. Dare I say yummy? I can’t wait to see where Big Dipper Baby Food goes next.

Kuli Kuli – This amazing business started when the founder took her own dietary needs and built a business around an ingredient (moringa) rather than a product. The nutrient value far surpasses kale and other leafy greens. Kuli Kuli is a triple bottom line business that has already reinvested by planting more moringa trees and helping female entrepreneurs in Africa. I am inspired and excited to watch Kuli Kuli continue to achieve its milestones.

It was a full day and I learned a lot at Food Funded. It recharged my batteries because I truly enjoy the gathering of my food clan — seeing many long-term industry friends while being introduced and inspired by the relentless passion of many new food entrepreneurs.