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How stories are selling the new crop of fancy foods

Specialty food brands and their founders told their compelling startup stories at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City last month.

Image: Specialty Food Association
(Image credit: Specialty Food Association)

Each year at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, specialty food brands seek to stand out from the crowd, an often daunting task amid the more than 2,000 players setting up stalls to tell their stories and make connections.

Compelling stories are key to building successful brands, celebrity chef and cookbook author Giada De Laurentiis said during her keynote at the show. De Laurentiis, who is also the founder of Italian food and lifestyle platform Giadzy, told her own story of growing up in Italy and then the US in a family with a passion for the food of their culture.

Giadzy was born in the pandemic, which called a halt to travel and accelerated the already growing shift to online shopping, De Laurentiis said. Over the last three years, the company has raised $5 million from investors and sales have been growing more than 400% year-over-year, she said.

The products included imported ingredients and meal kits organized around different themes. 

“We thought that people would buy our products as gifts,” she said. “It turned out they were buying for themselves.”

Interest grew with the addition of lifestyle content, recipes and QR codes that customers could scan to learn more about the producers who made the products they’re buying. The producers’ stories become even more important as consumers increasingly seek to assure themselves of the authenticity of the products they buy.

“It’s important to know where your food comes from and why you should pay more for these ingredients,” De Laurentiis said.

Authenticity and the story behind the price tag can be key for new brands like Growee Foods. 

Founder Aman Blana partnered with a pastry chef last year to develop the recipes for Growee Foods’ line of dips and spreads that are made without artificial preservatives, to fee consumers’ growing craving for “clean” plant-based eating.

That part of their story is important because, while using lemon juice and apple cider vinegar instead can give the products a shelf life of up to 18 months, it also drives up the cost of ingredients and the price of the finished products. 

The value of story

The stories of the specialty food brand founders, and the energy and passion with which they tell their tales, are also often the key to raising funds, especially for early stage startups, said Melissa Dolan, a director at investment firm Emil Capital Partners

Investors work closely with founders in the early stages, and providing funding is just one-third of the relationship. Taking an active role on the board and helping to bring in follow-on investors are also integral parts of the deal, Dolan said.

Success depends heavily on the founders and their stories.

“It’s the people, and their energy and the connection you feel with them [that’s important,]” Dolan said.

Many of those people were out in full force to share their stories at the show last month.

Ashley Nickelsen spent the better part of three years eating processed snacks from hospital vending machines while caring for her parents after both had been diagnosed with rare forms of cancer, and the creation of her better-for-you snack brand was born from her craving for healthier on-the-go options.

Her startup, B.T.R. Nation, stands for “be bold, tenacious and resilient,” the mantra of her parents to whom the company’s mission is dedicated. The brand began with snack bars and recently added chocolate truffles to the mix. All are plant-based, gluten-free and made without artificial ingredients, added sugars and sugar alcohols.

Nickelsen collaborated with a master chocolatier to create the newest products, which are made in a co-packing facility and shipped from B.T.R.’s San Francisco warehouse.

Nickelsen’s husband is a part-time employee of the company, and he took over when the founder went into labor and had an emergency C-section. Now Nickelsen often brings her young daughter to work at the warehouse as a way to keep both the business and her family up and running. 

Family recipes can also be an inspiration for new specialty food startups. Amie Kesler was craving the treats her grandmother used to make so she set about to tailor the recipes to the way she eats today, which meant vegan and gluten free.

The result – Carolyn’s Krisps, a startup named for her grandmother, which sells vegan versions of family favorites like Cheddar Krisps and Maple Pecan Krisps. The Chicago-based brand was part of the Target Forward Founders program last year, and the products are available online and in a growing roster of specialty retailers. 

New tales of healthy convenience

Many of the startup stories at this year’s show featured brands that are finding new ways to combine more nutritious eating with convenience.

Broomfield, Colo., couple Ben and Brooke Bacon, the parents of four children, were already eating more plants and less meat when the pandemic hit. Brooke’s discovery of a bag of lentils in the pantry in March 2020 sparked the creation of Lentiful, a startup selling instant lentils that are ready in the microwave in about one minute.

Ben did his homework and discovered that US growers in Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington produce large amounts of lentils, much of which is exported to other countries. 

He also learned more about the benefits of eating lentils, which are protein- and fiber-packed, take up the flavors of the spices and other ingredients with which they’re cooked, and pull in nitrogen to add nutrients to the soil without the need for added fertilizers.

All those benefits convinced him that convenience would be the key to encouraging Americans to eat more lentils. The company now offers the legumes in six different flavors via direct-to-consumer sales and expects to break into retail channels this fall, Ben Bacon said. 

Linda Alvarez and Stephanie Schrauth were classmates in the Executive MBA program at Cornell and partnering on a project led them to become accidental entrepreneurs.

Their interviews of more than 100 athletes and runners led to the discovery that, while men were happy with the existing performance gels on the market, women reported that those same products didn’t work for them and often made them feel ill.

Worse, many of the women blamed their bodies instead of realizing that the available products had been developed based on the needs of male bodies, the founders said.

That led the pair to develop whole food products made to fuel female athletes that also appeal to the taste buds. Their startup, Levelle Nutrition, now sells performance gels in strawberry and cranberry flavors. 

One more chapter

Sarabjit and Davinder Sawhney, who have been married and working together for more than 40 years, decided to sell their 7-Eleven stores and other business entities and retire a little over two years ago. 

Retirement lasted one week, the couple says, before they launched Davinder’s dream project – a business selling masala sauces made from the recipes she had made to feed friends and family for decades. The sauces are designed to be a convenient way to add flavors to quick meals.

The New Jersey-based brand, dubbed Bebe’s All Natural, features Indian sauces ranging from mild to spicy, all vegan, gluten-free and made without added sugars or artificial preservatives. 

“It’s our retirement project,” Sarabjit Sawhney said.

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