by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Festival & Conference kicked off a packed three-day schedule Thursday with its Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference. The program featured an introduction to the nonprofit organization’s new Good Food Business Accelerator, launched last fall, which provides mentoring, technical assistance, and networking opportunities to nine competitive selected entrepreneur Fellows.
The Festival & Conference runs through Saturday at the UIC Forum on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus (click here for an overview of the full event).
Jim Slama, president and founder of FamilyFarmed, led off a panel discussion with five of the Fellows: Harry Carr of Mint Creek Farm, a grass-raised livestock operation in Cabery, Illinois; Nik Jacobs, a third-generation participant in Jakobs Bros. Farms, a livestock and grain farming operation in Sterling, Illinois; Rowida Assalimy, whose Ro’s Beverages produces kishr, a traditional drink of Yemen made from coffee cherries; Thomas Frierson, co-owner with his wife of Spark of the Heart, a Chicago company that produces dried soup and salad mixes; and Jenny Yang of Chicago’s Phoenix Tofu, which makes fresh tofu, prepared tofu-based foods, and soy milk. (Read more about Phoenix Tofu on Good Food on Every Table by clicking here.)
Later in the program, the other four Fellows presented their business plans to an audience that included a number of investors, financiers, and lenders. They included:
• Mark Schneider of Living Water Farms in Strawn, Illinois, which is seeking to greatly grow its existing year-round greenhouse operation. (Read more about Living Water Farms on Good Food on Every Table by clicking here.)
• Alex Poltorak of Urban Canopy, which expands the supply of food grown indoors, outdoors, and on rooftops in the city of Chicago, provides composting solutions, and runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
• Riana Lynn, whose FoodTrace company has created an online platform that provides a high-tech solution helping facilitate business relationships across the supply chain with innovative ways to provide consumers with more traceable information.
• Shane Christensen of Chicago’s dailyServing, which makes a lineup of healthy and convenient products — based on dried fruits and vegetables, cold-pressed juices, nuts, and other functional foods — that address the busy lives of consumers. (Read more about dailyServing on Good Food on Every Table by clicking here.)
Pitches also were made by Daphne Mazarakis, CEO of Fair Acre Traders, based in Chicago, which is building supply of local and regional food to satisfy growing consumer demand; T.J. Callahan of Farmhouse, which has restaurants in Chicago and Evanston that feature locally and regionally farmed ingredients and is seeking financing for Farm Bar, a restaurant that will serve cider produced on site; and Jason Amundsen, who with wife Lucie runs the Locally Laid company of Wrenshall, Minnesota, which is building a growing business in locally produced eggs fueled by a creative marketing campaign built around its colorful name.
(Read more about Farmhouse Tavern on Good Food on Every Table by clicking here.)
Slama explained that the Accelerator program emerged from the experiences from previous Good Food Financing & Innovation conferences, which made clear that even many very promising start-up enterprises needed additional assistance in polishing their business plans and pitches. “The Accelerator gets Good Food businesses ready for primetime,” Slama said. Noting that consumer demand for local and sustainably produced food is growing fast, Slama said the Accelerator, among many other related activities at FamilyFarmed, is aimed to address the need for more mid-sized producers, food hubs, distribution infrastructure, and processing.
During the panel discussion, Jakobs emphasized the access that the Accelerator program provides to FamilyFarmed’s extensive network of experts from the Good Food business sector. “Speakers you see speaking to audiences of thousands of people we get for the 10 of us,” Jakobs said.
Yang said the Accelerator has taken her tofu company, which recently obtained shelf space at several Whole Foods Market stores in Chicago, “to totally different level.” She continued that the program has been “instrumental to expand our footprint in market.”
The Good Food Business Accelerator is located at 1871, a business incubator in the historic Merchandise Mart that is Chicago’s center for technology and innovation. Frierson praised the creative energy present at that location, saying, “The vibrancy of working in that space is infectious.”
Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, spoke at a welcome session along with Marc Schulman of Eli’s Cheesecake; Anne Alonzo, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service; Renee Michaels of the Kinship Foundation and the Land, Food, Opportunity program; Cook County (Chicago) Board President Toni Preckwinkle; Jeff Malehorn of World Business Chicago; and FamilyFarmed Board President Charlotte Flinn and Board member Jennifer Worstell.
The Opening Symposium, moderated by Slama, presented the expert opinions of Michael Bashaw, president of Whole Foods Market’s Midwest region; Melody Meyer of UNFI, the nation’s largest independent distributor of local and sustainable food; Jim Murphy of Local Foods Chicago, a distributor that is building an innovative retail market in its home city; Marianne Markowitz of the U.S. Small Business Administration; and Galen Miller of Miller Poultry, which produces antibiotic-free chicken raises in Indiana and Michigan, some of which is used to produce meals for Chicago Public Schools’ students under its farm to school program. Slama presented Miller with FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Business of the Year award during the session.
(Read more about Local Foods on Good Food on Every Table by clicking here.)
Photographs by Bob Benenson