Strength from Diversity - How i-Bars Club is Creating Innovative Protein Bars With International Ingredients

Our new blog series, “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle,” is all about founders at rising startups in the Branchfood community who are launching the next wave of exciting food brands.

We spoke to five incredible founders about product development, branding and marketing, and the success stories they’ve experienced so far.

In part 2, we spoke to Moemen Abbas, CEO and founder of i-Bars Club, whose mission is to create internationally themed, healthy protein bars. Read on to learn how i-Bars Club tests new ideas, how an incredible team is driving his innovative products, and the secret ingredient in his soon to be released Tokyo-themed bar.

This is part 2 of our “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle” series. Don’t forget to check out Part 1 (Veggie Table Foods). Check back in two weeks for part 3!

Tell us a bit about i-Bars Club.

We make premium vegan protein bars with an international theme. We’re introducing new flavors from different cities and each of our bars is named after a city where the key ingredient is from.

There are a lot of meal-replacement, protein, and health bars on the market today - what do you feel is i-Bars’ biggest differentiator?

We try to introduce new flavors you can’t get anywhere else. Most brands of bars have the same flavors - chocolate chip, peanut butter, and so on. Some bars have just a few benefits, and we want our bars to have them all - gluten-free, high-protein, GMO-free, etc. Very few bars hit on all of those. Even worse is that some “protein bars” have less than 15g of protein. That’s not a protein bar for someone who’s working out a lot.

We consider ourselves very innovative, with new products always coming in the pipeline, and we want to introduce a lot of different international flavors. We’re also in a niche market where we’re targeting affluent consumers. These are people who want high quality ingredients from all over the world. For example, our next bar is “Tokyo.” For that, we’re importing matcha directly from Japan to use in our bars. That’s expensive, so we’re targeting affluent consumers. No one else is doing that.

I’ve hired a chef, food scientist, and nutritionist, and I’m a pharmacist by training. This combination is very strong for creating scientifically healthy bars that taste good.

When did you know you had something you could build a business around, as opposed to just an interesting idea?

I studied in international schools for years, and I had this idea to do something that was both healthy and reflected my international background. So I worked with health consultants and they suggested protein bars that sourced ingredients from different countries. It’s taken a lot of time get to a point where we can start production, but so far people love the bars and we’re able to bring super foods from all over the world.

What are some concrete steps you took to go from idea to product, to something that can scale?

I’m bootstrapping and focusing on finding the right team who can work with a startup. It’s tough to build a good team with minimal resources. Building a memorable brand is also challenging.

It was also very difficult to get my visa as an immigrant. It took 7-8 months just to get my visa. I had to overcome a lot of hurdles.

Can you share your process for gathering feedback and turning it into actionable steps for your own product development?

We worked with focus groups we put together through our network - friends, people at the gym, etc. Targeted focus groups are important. Our products are international and everyone has different taste buds. We test with American-only groups and international groups and ask them about our bars as well as our competitors.

We also just go out on the streets and to cafes and hand out samples. We ask just people to try it and get feedback.

For just our first bar, we ran over 25 trials to make sure we had it right.

What food brands have been most influential to you?

Every company has a model - I really like RXBAR. When they changed the design, their sales increased a lot and was noticed more by customers. That showed me how important packaging is for CPG sales.

Labeling all of the ingredients right on the front of the package was a smart move - being transparent is the most important thing in our space. For me, a protein bar must have premium superfoods and quality ingredients. I wish every protein bar told you everything inside it.

Being available everywhere is important as well - Quest Bars has done a great job of getting distributed almost anywhere you can think of.

What success story are you most proud of?

I would say, I invested a lot in real estate in Egypt - I had a lot of experience and I was very lucky when I bought my real estate because I could sell it high. I invested when everyone was selling, and when the market boomed, I made a lot of profits. I’m also very proud of my Master’s in marketing, which has given me a lot of connections worldwide. My network has helped me a lot and I’m proud of it.

How does your global background influence your products and branding?

I traveled all over the world for my education, and I worked in Egypt, Dubai, Singapore, the U.S., and some others. Every time I met people in different parts of the world, I saw that everyone had different habits and cultures. More specifically, I learned that everyone looked at food differently. I was never passionate about health before, but now I am and I’m combining it with my love of travel and sharing it. You can see all of my passions in iBars.


This interview was conducted and written by Ideometry, an all-in-one growth marketing agency helping everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies engineer brilliant integrated campaigns, find their ideal audience, fuel their pipeline, and drive real success.

In the middle of a campaign and need some support? Want to build something awesome from scratch? We’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at ideometry.com or at hello@ideometry.com

Read the rest of our “Five Food Startups Winning the Branding Battle” series:

5 Disruptive Takeaways from Food Edge 2018

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Here at Branchfood, we like to say, “Innovation will fix the food system.” Another way to put this is, “Disruption will innovate the food system.” Last week, innovation and disruption were on full display at the first-ever Food Edge Summit, a two-day “meeting of the food minds” in Boston’s Seaport District that brought together the entrepreneurs, scientists, thought leaders, and chefs who envision a food system that is safer, tastier, simpler, and better for all.

If you were among the hundreds who packed into the more than 20 talks and panels at Food Edge, you left with a notebook full of inspiration and tips -- and hopefully a stack of business cards -- to give new energy for your entrepreneurial food journey. If you couldn’t join us, we took the liberty of condensing roughly 16 hours of content and networking into five key takeaways. This is obviously not a comprehensive list, but our hope is that it provides the spark a food disruptor needs -- and, hopefully, entices you to join us at Food Edge 2019!

Food disruption starts with people.
In the very first session at Food Edge, Jamie Scheu and Ben Little from presenting sponsor Hill Holliday shared from their well of experience in food marketing and design thinking. “Start with people,” Ben told us, “then come up with ideas and develop prototypes. Think from the lens of human moments.” The best products -- the ones that simplify a common action in the kitchen or put a healthy meal on the tables of busy families -- began with customer insights rather than assumptions on the part of the entrepreneur. Remember: start with humans!

Everyone is talking about food innovation -- even (maybe especially) big retailers.
You might think larger, legacy retailers like supermarket chains are disinterested in innovating. After all, the general layout and product selection at most large chains has remained unchanged for decades, even as the number of shoppers holds steady and ticks upward. But Craig Boyan and Scott Mitchell of Texas supermarket giant H-E-B told us otherwise. “Why do retailers care about innovating?” Boyan asked. “We can only beat Walmart and Amazon by innovating.” H-E-B is doing this in its stores by selecting better ingredients, making organics affordable for all, offering products you can’t get anywhere else, and ultimately capture the lucrative Texas market. In doing so, H-E-B partners with smaller brands to help them grow, manage their commoditization cycle, and push them to continually innovate. Remember: don’t shrug off supermarkets in your push to evolve the system!

It’s never too late to become an entrepreneur!
Keynote speaker Heather Mills opened Day 2 by telling about her own journey from a career in international modeling through a near-death experience to running one of the world’s oldest and largest vegan foods brands, VBites. In her touching and at times funny talk, Heather made an impassioned case for the role of plant-based eating in our food future (“instead of vegan hippie, it should be vegan hip”) and pulled back the curtain on some of VBites’ strategies and principles as she prepares to expand to the United States in the next few years. Remember: maybe your best idea or most successful business is ahead of you!

Everything we do is a work in progress.
Perhaps nowhere is this sentiment put into more meaningful action than at Boston’s Chew Labs, which is bringing a culinary and scientific lens to some of the most promising food products being developed today. Chef Adam Melonas, who previously co-founded UNREAL candy, shared his belief that food innovation is as much about process as it is products. At the same time, says Melonas, “comfort is the enemy of innovation” -- meaning we should always be striving to make our product or service even better. Remember: don’t get comfortable!

Personalized nutrition is the next big thing in food...but it’s still a diet.
The emerging frontier in food and nutrition, experts tell us, is personalized nutrition: products that often tap into our unique DNA and family histories to tell us what we should or shouldn’t eat. But these products, at their core, are still just diets, according to Thomas Hayes, research associate with Lux Research. Hayes said that to keep a personalized nutrition product from going the way of defunct fad diets like Nutrisystem, Atkins, and SlimFast, it must traffic in credible science; have value alignment with the consumer around health/wellness, convenience, price, experience, taste, and safety; and provide constant guidance to the consumer as he or she uses the product. The personalized nutrition industry offers many business opportunities, but only if the product or service ticks these three blocks. Remember: the trash heap of history is filled with fad diets -- don’t become one of them!

This is, of course, an incomplete list, but please do share your big takeaways in the comments below or in our social media feeds. If you made it to Food Edge, we hope it was a fruitful and inspiring time -- no matter how you’re working to influence our industry. And if you weren’t there, will you consider joining us next year?

Until then, never stop innovating. It’s the only thing that will fix our food system.

The State of Food Innovation: Life Sciences in Boston

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One cannot discuss food innovation without discussing food science. Scientific inquiry and innovation undergirds nearly every facet of food, from how and what we grow to the nutritional balance of foods we consume, and to the environmental sustainability of what we eat.

Food science is couched within the life sciences: branches of science involving the study of living organisms like microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans. Boston has long been an outpost of discovery in the life sciences, buoyed by the hundreds of top-tier colleges and universities in the region. Many of the prescription drugs bringing healing and comfort to millions of Americans had their start here, and local companies that make them – like Novartis, Biogen, and Genzyme – are making billions in revenues as a result.

But besides Big Pharma, Boston is rapidly – and, perhaps, quietly – becoming a hub for food science innovation. This includes the development of new biotechnology solutions for farmers, cutting-edge nutritional research, gene and DNA research, and several investors funding this work.

Agriculture Biotechnology

As the world population balloons and extreme climate events become more frequent, farmers around the globe seek solutions to better safeguard their crops and increase community food security. The bioengineering of seeds and plants to resist insects and weeds, delay spoilage, or increase fruit size has been occurring for decades – and, some argue, centuries. One of the most exciting frontiers in this space is CRISPR – a fairly new technology that could transform the food we eat by allowing scientists to edit out undesirable traits in the foods we eat, like bruising or early spoilage. (of local note, MIT-based researcher Feng Zheng harnessed this technology for use in mammals)

The genetic modification of the foods we grow and eat has its skeptics, for sure, including those who argue that GM foods are unsafe to eat, harmful to the environment, or result in corporate consolidation in the food system. These critiques must be weighed and addressed. But even as the important conversation around food bioethics continues, we need to grapple with a few facts about biotechnology:

·      Our earliest ancestors were “engineering” crops and animals to increase the yield and quality of their food;

·      70 percent of processed foods today contain some form of genetically modified organisms; and

·      The more we study genetically engineered foods, the more scientists deem them as safe for human consumption. Tim Griffin, associate professor and director of the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, recently was among a group of scientists who spent two years studying 900 publications on genetically engineered foods for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This committee determined that genetically engineered foods pose no health risk to humans who consume them.

In labs throughout Greater Boston, scientists are developing solutions to increase the safety, abundance, and shelf life of the foods we produce and consume. Of particular note is Indigo, a Charlestown-based life sciences company treating agricultural seeds with combinations of naturally occurring fungi and bacteria commonly found in plants. Farmers growing crops on more than a half million acres across the country say these treated seeds are more tolerant of extreme weather like draught, and investors have responded in kind. In 2017, Indigo’s valuation grew to $1.4 billion, making it one of the largest ag-tech startups ever.

If Indigo is fortifying seeds, Cambridge Crops is fortifying mature fruits and vegetables. The Cambridge company, in partnership with MIT and Tufts, created a natural and edible biopolymer coating that, when applied to perishable food, postpones decay by reducing contact with gases and water vapor. Rabobank and MIT announced last year that the startup was among three recipients of the 2017 Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize for startups, for which the award was more than $50,000.

Ginkgo Bioworks, headquartered in Boston’s Seaport District, which uses yeasts to develop new flavors and fragrances, announced late last year its partnership with biotech giant Bayer on a startup that could replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Some crops, like beans and peanuts, are hosts for microbes that allow the plants to naturally fertilize themselves. Ginkgo and Bayer are bringing these microbes to crops that don’t naturally feature them – like corn, wheat, and rice, which account for more than half of all synthetic fertilizer use – resulting in even more crops that can fertilize themselves.

The local advances in food biotechnology even pertain to fish. Lowell-based KnipBio is actively developing a suite of powerful bioengineering tools to rapidly advance specific desirable traits that make an ideal single cell protein in fish diets, the idea being that we can lessen the environmental strain on wild fisheries.

Nutrition Science & Testing

Americans care a great deal – and increasingly so – about the nutritional value of the foods and drinks we put into our bodies. Buoyed by the health food boom, companies are taking notice, of course, offering products higher in the kinds of good ingredients consumers seek and lower in the ones we want to avoid. But so are scholars and scientists.

Frank Hu, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has studied the potential benefits of precision nutrition and, specifically, the use of gene sequencing to create a nutritional roadmap for individuals. For instance, using genetic data, personalized diets could be developed for individuals suffering from Type 1 diabetes, who are obese or overweight, and even those who wonder whether they might benefit from regular coffee consumption. (as an aside, the personalized nutrition space has become so promising, food giant Campbell’s has even gotten into the fray, spinning off the startup Habit)

Speaking of investments by big food companies, Nestlé Health Science made a $42.5 million equity investment in Boston-based startup Pronutria, which was initially formed within VentureLabs, the incubator of Flagship Ventures. Pronutria combines a Systems Biology understanding of the human metabolism, with its own library of the food proteome.

Could a computer chip simulate human organs, allowing scientists to test not-yet-developed drugs and foods more safely and conclusively? That’s the central idea behind Emulate Bio’s “Health Emulation System,” which it says opens a “high-fidelity window into the inner workings of the human body.” Early last year, Emulate’s “Organ on a Chip” was tapped to partner short-term with the Food and Drug Administration to see if the technology can stand up to what’s required to evaluate new products.

Consultants & Investors

Life sciences companies working on food and nutrition have plenty of local partners in the funding and consulting world. Consulting firm Lux Research, headquartered in Boston, helps developers and emerging companies understand just what consumers are seeking in terms of wellness and nutrition and keep them abreast of the next big technology and trend coming down the pike.

Local venture capital firm Anterra Capital focuses heavily on food biotechnology, investing in chemical companies enko chem and agrimetis, as well as CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering firm Caribou Biosciences, plant breeding software LemnaTec, and protein preservation technology bluwrap. And Flagship Venturing, out of Cambridge, is a main investor in Indigo, helping the biotech startup raise $203 million in Series D funding in late 2017. Boston-based DSM Venturing – an arm of the $12 billion science-based company – has focused its portfolio of investments on startups in solar and personal nutrition.

The Future of Food Life Sciences

So much of the innovation happening in food and agriculture has a foundation in laboratories, and as long as Greater Boston remains home to the world’s top scientists discovering new frontiers in top laboratories, the Boston metropolitan area will continue to make an outsized influence on the space.

The State of Food Innovation: Agriculture & Farming in Boston

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The State of Food Innovation: Agriculture & Farming in Boston

With every food revolution, expect to see a farm revolution. The reason for this is simple: as consumers demand more from their food – locally sourced, fresher, fewer chemicals, and the like – food innovators are working to shorten the distance between field and fork. Consequently, growers are changing their practices to accommodate this new, more transparent reality.

Here in Boston, “know your farmer” is a common refrain in food and agriculture circles, and the relative geographic closeness between rural farms and population centers has for years made this quite possible. Urban and ex-urban consumers in Massachusetts mingle with producers year-round at summer and winter farmer’s markets – which have increased three-fold in number since 2004. Here in Boston, the number of markets has increased from around 10 just over a decade ago to almost 30 today, and our year-round Boston Public Market brings consumers Massachusetts-grown produce, meats, dairy, beer, and spirits.

It Takes a Region
We’ve made the case in this series that Boston is becoming a national center for food innovation, with numerous food and farm-related consumer packaged goods, technologies, and other products coming to market in the last decade. A significant reason for this is the agricultural bounty available in New England. From Maine blueberries and lobsters to Massachusetts cod and apples to Vermont dairy and produce, food companies headquartered near Boston can utilize regional ingredients while leveraging the close geographical proximity to make coveted claims like “locally sourced.” In fact, efforts are underway across the region to both protect existing farmland, create new growing opportunities, and dramatically increase the amount of food produced – and consumed – here. Food Solutions New England has put forth its New England Food Vision, a bold plan to build capacity across the region for regional farmers and fishers to catch or produce half of the food New England residents consume by 2060. A vision like this requires innovation not only at the retail and production levels – including the willingness to grow food literally anywhere – but radical changes in distribution infrastructure as well.

Greenhouse Farms
The Northeast traditionally has not been able to support large-scale farms, partly because we have less available acreage than the Midwest and West and partly because of our cooler climate. Fresh Box Farms, in Millis, Mass., is working to change that perception, though its brand of industrial farming bears little resemblance to the iconic images of row crops in America’s Bread Basket. Fresh Box is an indoor hydroponic farm, which means plant roots sit directly in water and receive light artificially – thus using 99 percent less water than field farming. Farming indoors allows Fresh Box to grow its pesticide-free greens year-round, without fear of inclement weather or pests. And growing closer to population centers like Boston allows Fresh Box to deliver its greens to retail stores within 24 hours of harvest – sometimes the same day.

Fresh Box isn’t stopping in Millis. Company heads have their sights set on opening 25 new farms across the U.S., each of which could produce up to three tons of produce daily. Indoor farming operations like Fresh Box, New Jersey-based Bowery, and San Francisco-based Plenty have seen an influx of investor cash and are projected to grow to a $42 billion industry in the next 10 years. In fact, in a decade, up to half the leafy greens Americans consume will have been grown in greenhouses like the Fresh Box’s Millis warehouse.

Urban Farms
To feed the increasing and increasingly urban population in and around Boston, it won’t be enough to simply import food from elsewhere.

Farming itself can be a profitable venture, and Boston’s Urban Farming Institute is training up the next generation of “green-collar workers” seeking to make money in food. The UFI works across the Commonwealth to identify and restore land that could become a farm, training residents to become successful small-plot urban farmers, consulting with cities on policy changes to accommodate urban agriculture.

City Growers has been transforming Boston’s empty lots into farms, farms into food, and food into cash. Founded in 2009 by Glynn Lloyd, who co-founded City Fresh Foods in 1994, the nonprofit City Growers sells its Boston-grown produce to restaurants like Bella Luna, Tremont 647, and Henrietta’s Table.

Similarly, The Food Project is a nonprofit connecting urban youth with local food production on farms in Boston and outside the city. Several Food Project alums have taken the lessons learned during their summers growing food in the city to commercial farms elsewhere or into their work starting food businesses.

These traditional urban farms are breathing new life into working-class neighborhoods and restoring sometimes toxic and blighted city lands. But given the rate at which Boston developers are building on available land, the future of urban agriculture probably involves growing food in the unlikeliest places – from rooftops to greenhouses to shipping containers.

Rooftop Farms
Certified B-Corp Green City Growers has built quite a successful business assisting companies and building owners in turning empty rooftops and terraces into prime growing space. Often working with Somerville-based Recover Green Roofs on installation, Green City Growers has designed rooftop farms and gardens for businesses, colleges, and restaurants across Greater Boston, resulting in more than 175,000 pounds of organic produce. This includes the 5,000-square-foot Fenway Farms, an organic, rooftop growing space along the third-baseline at the iconic ballpark, where veggies like kale and peppers are grown and served in concession stands and restaurants around the park. Green City Growers also installed and maintains the 17,000-square-foot farm on the roof of Whole Foods Market in Lynnfield – the grocery chain’s only such farm.

High atop the roof of the Boston Design Center, the 55,000-square-foot Higher Ground Farm is one of the city’s largest rooftop growing operations. From the Design Center, workers take fresh herbs, flowers, and produce to restaurants and markets around the city – by bike. Higher Ground also manages a rooftop farm at Boston Medical Center, which claims the distinction of having the most plantable rooftop space in the city.

An Explosion of Ag-tech
Urban farms in Boston – whether on a rooftop or in an empty lot – are still largely bound by three seasons of difficult and cold growing weather. To address this conundrum, Boston-based Freight Farms invented its Leafy Green Machine – a 40-foot stainless steel shipping container stacked floor to ceiling with hydroponic vertical growing towers and LED lighting. Freight Farms markets its flagship product as able to produce leafy greens and herbs at a commercial scale. But does it work?

To answer that question, one need only look a few miles away from Freight Farms’ headquarters. In an empty parking lot in East Boston, Shawn and Connie Cooney of Corner Stalk Farm tend to four shipping containers full of hydroponic lettuce, swiss chard, kale, basil, arugula, mint, and mustard greens. The Cooneys, who are both in their 60s, harvest between 4,000 and 6,000 plants a week – roughly 80 times the amount they’d harvest on a conventional farm – while using less than 10 gallons of water per container. Corner Stalk Farm moved into a space at Boston Public Market in 2015, and in a CNN Money story that year, Shawn Cooney reported grossing more than $15,000 a month from Corner Stalk Farm.

Freight Farms is emblematic of a larger trend in which Boston has become a leader: the introduction of new technologies that are harnessing the region’s collective brain power to disrupt traditional agriculture. Consider CiBO, a Cambridge company, which launched with $30 million in funding with its analytics software for farmers growing staple crops like corn and soy. SproutsIO created a micro-garden that lets city-dwellers grow food indoors year-round. Other technologies developed here assist in food processing, track harvests and estimate crop yields, and improve the water efficiency of cotton plants.

A Hub of Food & Farm Investment
Where there is a multitude of technologies disrupting agriculture, you’ll also find a multitude of investors seeking to fund them. That’s certainly true in Greater Boston, where we’ve seen exponential growth in funding for ag-related businesses by local firms. Launched this year by Branchfood founder Lauren Abda and esteemed Boston venture capitalist Marcia Hooper, Branch Venture Group is an angel network for investment in early-stage food products, food tech, and ag-tech startups in the Boston area. The group was formed after its founders noticed a gap in early-stage funding for small food businesses, the number of which is ever increasing in Greater Boston.

Branch joins a community of investors that are fueling Boston’s food and farm future. Hancock Agricultural Investments manages $2.9 billion in agricultural farmland assets for its institutional investors. Startups like Incredible Foods and Inari Agriculture have seen big investments from Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering, which also helped Charlestown biotech company Indigo raise an incredible $156 million in 2016. And local venture firm Fresh Source Capital invest heavily in companies that are rebuilding sustainable agriculture systems, including food rescue technology Spoiler Alert, indoor farming software platform Agrilyst, and meal delivery service Just Add Cooking. And the list goes on.

The Future
One imagines an agricultural future in which food companies and entrepreneurs continue to draw on the rich bounty of New England’s farms, orchards, and fisheries – as well as its rich financial resources. One also sees the addition of more clean, green indoor hydroponic grow facilities capable of producing fresh food year-round – both large-scale greenhouses in the Boston suburbs and smaller facilities in the urban core. Also expect to see food being grown in smaller, more unusual places within the city as commercial landlords incorporate farms and gardens into office space, real estate developers entice tenants and residents with both indoor and outdoor gardens, and cities continue combating the effects of climate change with green roofs and walls. Greater Boston will continue to harness its intellectual assets to create products and technologies that will transform the way we farm and eat in a rapidly changing world, many times buoyed financially by local investors.

This future, which many thought of as “space-age” just a few years ago, is quickly becoming our reality – a reality that is benefitting visionary entrepreneurs, farmworkers, and eaters in a rapidly urbanizing world.

 

Mapping the Future of Food, Cooking and the Kitchen at the Smart Kitchen Summit

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The Smart Kitchen Summit is the first and only event dedicated to mapping the future of food, cooking, and the kitchen. Branchfood is thrilled to be a marketing partner of the conference since its inception and we'll have someone there at the event! If you would like to connect with us, DM us on Twitter!

The Summit was founded in 2015 when smart home and IoT veteran analyst Michael Wolf noticed a trend forming in the smart home space – the emergence of kitchen technology or, the smart kitchen. He realized that this unique relationship between the food we consume and create and the technology that is revolutionizing that experience was beginning to grow at an increasingly fast pace. Mike saw an opportunity to create a forum for conversation around this burgeoning trend that would bring leading voices across the various niches in smart kitchen together to share ideas and information.

Now in its third year, Smart Kitchen Summit is the premier convening of leaders from technology, food, appliances, commerce and retail, and delivery and features discussions, panels, fireside chats and workshops on how connectivity, artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning, virtual reality, design innovation and the on-demand economy will transform the consumer experience with food.

In addition to conversations and presentations, the Smart Kitchen Summit features opportunities for companies to expand their presence in the industry. The Startup Showcase, a competition that seeks out the most interesting and disruptive startups in food and kitchen tech, is a place for emerging leaders to demo and pitch their ideas to an audience packed with key decision makers and thought leaders.

The Smart Kitchen Summit is more than just an event. With the success of the Summit came a joint venture – The Spoon, a media B2B site dedicated to covering the future of food, cooking and the kitchen through regular industry news, contributed pieces, and more.

Interested in joining the conversation? Join us October 10-11, 2017 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA for two packed days of networking, product demonstrations, and programming. Use code BRANCHFOOD for 25% off the price of any ticket type. www.smartkitchensummit.com

Know Your Food Entrepreneurs #6: Mint Pattanan + Naphat Chaiparinya from Rootastes

What do you do on your lunch break, besides eat? Socialize with colleagues, make a pharmacy run, eat chicken salad at your desk between emails? According to a study done by the hiring company OfficeTeam, Americans are increasingly falling into the latter category, with 29% saying they work through their breaks. New food startup Rootastes is hoping to bring a greater sense of community to the workplace through the oft-neglected lunch hour.

“Even for one hour, we try,” says co-founder Naphat Chaiparinya. She sighs, visibly frustrated. “You’re supposed to have a good time with your good lunch.”

This mission is heavily influenced by the founders’ Thai origins. Co-founder Mint Pattanan Ketthin chimes in, “we like going out together, in a big group. We enjoy eating out. In Thai culture, getting together makes good relations between employees.” With this philosophy, Rootastes targets corporate employers who want to create a sense of community in the workplace.

Another substantial part of the Rootastes mission is addressing the abstraction of mealtime food that’s intensified in the past decades. Both Chaiparinya and Pattanan have experience working in the corporate world, and talk passionately about bridging the gap between workers and the farmers that produce their food. Reflecting on her time WWOOFing on an organic farm in Japan, Chaiparinya says, “Why is life so complicated? You want money to buy food, but you can grow the food yourself! Whatever you want to eat, you just have to wait for it.” It’s this farm-to-table mentality that inspire the founders to maximize partnerships with local farms and curate a seasonal menu in order to accommodate fluctuating supply.

For similarly minded restauranteurs and caterers who don’t know how to start finding suppliers, Rootastes offers a surprisingly simple path: Chaiparinya and Pattanan went to major distributors Baldor Food’s and Russo’s to taste produce from various local farms, then visited the farms which seemed most promising. “It’s good to learn how they make their product,” says Pattanan. “I work in marketing, but the most important thing is that I work in corporate social responsibility. Besides making good food for people, we want to help local farms as well.”

This initiative to find local ingredients demonstrates the applied passion with which Rootastes’ founders conduct their business. Halfway through our interview, Chaiparinya says with a laugh, “you don’t need to ask us questions -- we really want to talk about this!” The two of them had been up since six in the morning to work on an event, but become instantly re-animated when asked about the new corporate lifestyle they hope to encourage. Pattanan’s attraction to the startup industry lies in this problem-solving mentality: “We find the problem, and the company’s product and service are the solution. I want to create something that benefits the community.”

As for building the Rootastes team, Pattanan explains it happened organically: she and Chaiparinya were friends from before, and their executive chef, Wachira Sittikong, was a friend of a friend. Coming from a long line of family-owned leading Thai restaurants in Boston and Massachusetts, Sittikong studied business and worked in the financial district before attending Le Cordon Bleu.

Instrumental in the creation of new dishes, Chef Sittikong helped design the Rootastes menu. Clients choose packages that consist of a carbohydrate base, like white rice or specialty grain, vegetables such as umami medley mushroom or sesame spinach, a protein, perhaps baked spinach or grilled shrimp, and lastly a sauce, be it ginger teriyaki or garlic basil aioli. The menu is extensive, and packages vary in number of servings and scope of choice. Since the spotlight is on the ingredients themselves, the actual cooking process is simple: a bit of seasoning, with house-made herb oil. And it seems to work -- Pattanan recalls one happy employee who told her it was the best lunch he’d had in two years.

I work in marketing, but the most important thing is that I work in corporate social responsibility. Besides making good food for people, we want to help local farms as well.

When it comes to scaling the business, Chaiparinya and Pattanan take a measured approach. In business for just two months, they are entirely self-funded and use a commercial kitchen to prepare food. “We just want to make this happen first,” says Chaiparinya. “We proved to ourselves already that we can make it, but we have to prove that to other people. We got a good answer from our customers, so for me it’s a good start. But for the next step, of course funding is the most important. We know that right now.” Pattanan agrees: “The most important thing is the food. We want to make sure we have a very good product before we jump into technology.”

At the moment, Rootastes clients can order through a chat bot on the company Facebook page, as well as the company’s website. But Pattanan envisions, in the near future, incorporating slack, the inter-company messaging system. “People already know our product, they know our food,” she explains. “When we bring in technology so we can reach new markets, new customers.” Chaiparinya says that most of Rootastes’ clients are companies that employ Boston’s extensive millennial population, a demographic that’s both open to trying new things and interested in sustainable sourcing and transparency in where their food comes from.

Rootastes is just one company in a community of startups that take advantage of Branchfood’s numerous resources. Pattanan and Chaiparinya have met with Branchfood mentors several times to discuss business development, and appreciate the sense of like-minded community they share with other entrepreneurs they’ve met through the organization. “The Boston community is very supportive for entrepreneurs,” says Pattanan. Chaiparinya adds, “It’s been over our expectations. We’re looking forward to using more facilities here -- we should, but we’re so busy!”

You can read more about Rootastes here. If you’re interested in joining the Branchfood community, you can read more about membership options here. Interview conducted by Chloe Barran.

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