By GREGORY ZELLER // It’s one thing for a food startup to conquer the weekend farmer’s market circuit, something much more to break into retail, where the average grocery store offers customers more than 40,000 items, with 20,000 new ones introduced nationally every year.
Of which 80 percent fail.
How to win over the big boys and keep them coming back for more? There’s an incubator for that.
Welcome Spring to Market, a new initiative by Stony Brook University’s Calverton food and technology space, which united more than 20 food-focused manufacturers with buyers from gourmet shops and some of the region’s largest supermarket chains.
The expo, held May 11, was actually part two of a pilot program facilitated by a grant from the Workforce Development Institute, a statewide nonprofit championing economic and community development; part one was an April merchandising workshop designed to help startups prep for the expo.
Many of these businesses are run by entrepreneurs more comfortable writing recipes than business plans, so the idea was to give them a marketing edge – and a chance to pitch big-league buyers including King Kullen and its Wild by Nature subsidiary, Fairway Market and regional IGA stores. Buyers from these and more than a dozen other chains and specialty shops gathered at the incubator to sample wares and hear pitches from businesses like artisanal pickle enterprise Divine Brine, Lucky Lou’s Gourmet Rice Pudding, hummus-maker Citrose Enterprises and the North Fork Chocolate Co.
But first came that April 20 marketing course, mandatory for companies intending to showcase at the expo. The entrepreneurs were prepped to discuss their products with potential buyers by a team of merchandising experts, including retired King Kullen VP Tom Cullen and Kerry Young, vice president of Plainview ad house Crown Advertising, according to incubator director Monique Gablenz.
“They taught us how to present ourselves and how to present our products,” said Grace Marie Longinetti, owner of the Calverton-based granola and energy bar maker Copia Granola. “It was extremely worthwhile.”
Christine Bellini, another instructor, brought her own significant food-startup experience to the table. The senior gourmet brand writer for Crown Advertising and founder of Bellinink, a Sag Harbor consultancy specializing in helping companies breach new markets, Bellini is also the cofounder of Two Italian Girls, a circa-2001 startup that produced a line of vegetable tortes, flatbreads and sauces. Five years in, Bellini and her partner sold out to a Brooklyn-based ravioli company.
And that’s an increasingly popular exit strategy for food startups today, Bellini noted.
“Big companies can’t sell themselves as sustainable local companies, which is what consumers want,” she noted. “So they’re more than willing to purchase up-and-coming brands and let them remain who they are. The giants know they have to move over for the granola guy who’s starting to make a dent, and that makes for an interesting time in the food market.”
The majority of workshop and expo participants, Bellini added, were “really quite new and trying to figure out exactly what their companies are going to be.”
“They’re in that in-between phase where they’re wondering if they should fish or cut bait,” she said. “Everyone loves their muffins, but does the world need more muffins?”
“If you don’t know where you’re heading, you don’t know how to get there,” she said. “So we tried to give them a flashlight and a map.”
Programs like the training classes and expo, Longinetti noted, prove the benefits of working in education-related spaces like the Calverton incubator.
“It’s world-class as far as equipment, but it’s not just a kitchen – it’s a kitchen where you get an education,” the granola-maker said. “Your product is promoted. You’re constantly critiqued by the other startups sharing space in the incubator. You’re always learning.”
Education is one of the main thrusts of Calverton, which was built specifically to nourish technology and agricultural enterprises, making food-based startups a custom fit, according to Gablenz.
“A lot of the food companies here are using local products to make their products,” she said. “If they’re making pickles, they’re getting their cucumbers from a local farm stand.”
Gablenz pointed to several deals and ongoing negotiations stemming from the expo, including product orders placed by East End-based bakery chain Tate’s Bake Shop and the Sag Harbor IGA, among others. Other potential buyers – including representatives of the Texas-based Whole Foods Market chain – are negotiating directly with Calverton incubees.
“I think the entrepreneurs learned a great deal,” Gablenz added. “We’re hoping we can make it an annual event.”
Longinetti, who through the Spring to Market expo will be supplying gluten- and genetically modified organism-free Copia Granola products to Tate’s Bake Shop, Gabby’s Gourmet Bagelatessen in Woodbury and the Hampton Bays Lobster Shack, isn’t about to argue.
“This showed the vendors we are serious about getting our products out there,” Longinetti said. “Without the expo, we’d never be able to meet all these high-end vendors in such a small period of time.”