Once fringe foods are migrating toward the middle as alternative eating goes mainstream. The recently wrapped Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco reported “record sales of the $109 billion specialty food industry” and its biggest turnout in 41 years, “a 16 percent increase above 2015 [attendance].”
Nut butters, fortified beverages, and alternative proteins are all product segments that you would find at the Winter Fancy Food Show or Natural Products Expo West, upcoming in March. A food industry category you may not have heard of, inedible but certainly on the rise, is food entrepreneur services, the assorted collectives of consultants, mentors, near peers, designers, corporate leaders, thought leaders, scientists and technical experts that help food entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
Last February, The Plate suggested that what had “democratized the landscape of American food innovation” was the uptick in food incubators and accelerators. Such ventures are part of the story, but only a part, as plenty of food entrepreneurs successfully plan, launch and grow startups without them.
As a whole, the category has ballooned behind the proliferation of new food products and their makers. But be they corporate or independent, food incubators and accelerators are startups themselves. All are young, and so the field is fragmented and confusing. (Some content curators label initiatives “incubator” or “accelerator” that are really just conferences, summits, meet-ups, or co-working spaces.)
Last spring, food business consultant Jeff Grogg said of the ‘food entrepreneur services’ industry: “I think there’s still a ways to go. Right now, I see a bit too much emphasis on advisers and not enough on doers, meaning [those who] can hands-on help implement… Certainly, some are delivering in terms of money and press. But the way Y Combinator has nailed it for tech, I don’t think we’ve nailed it yet for food.” His assessment remains accurate.
Among the more solid independents are AccelFoods, Food-X, Good Food Business Accelerator and SKU (formerly Incubation Station). The next wave will include more corporate-led initiatives. While Coca-Cola has had its Founders incubator since 2013, Chobani is still working on its model and Target launched Food + Future coLab with IDEO this month. We can expect to see others in the near term.
Models are all different, making it hard to parse and organize the players. Some take equity; others charge a fee. Some are open application; others are invitation-only. Some focus on growing the entrepreneur, others on growing the idea. Some are in business to find businesses (to acquire), others to find ideas (to implement).
As this Examiner posited last year, incubators and accelerators “are one option in a necessary portfolio of hubs and resources helping food entrepreneurs to learn.” They are getting the most attention because they are the easiest to understand. But just as a food value chain links raw ingredients providers to manufacturers to distributors to retailers to eaters, there needs to exist a food entrepreneurial value chain: with distinct offerings each relevant to a particular step of the process.
Currently, too many players are claiming that they can deliver the whole enchilada. What lies ahead for food entrepreneur service providers is to begin articulating the specific kinds of food entrepreneurs they aim to serve and for which stage(s) of business development. This will lead to better matchmaking and greater efficiencies. For now, it’s still early days.