Food & Beverage Innovators? How about Game Changers?

The San Francisco Bay Area is a hot-bed for all things food, including food & beverage start-ups. It is the combination of the commitment to great food, good health, and access to lots of venture capital that nurtures this.

Many of the new food and beverage start ups claim they are values- and mission-driven. They have admirable intentions to improve health, help the environment, or improve the quality of life for the exploited. I was curious about whether a company can maintain these lofty goals while answering to investors. Does the push to make money and justify yourself to investors affect the decisions you make as a food entrepreneur? These food and beverage entrepreneurs raise large sums of cash through VC. Often these are investors who are more interested in exit strategies than the overall mission which birthed the business.

I attended a forum of food and beverage entrepreneurs the other day, hoping to find an answer. And I discovered something.

The forum was set up as a panel discussion with five leaders in the food and beverage industry. Small “start-ups”, all of which were “value and mission driven” and they all spoke about what motivated them to start their businesses. Caryl Levine of Lotus Foods is committed to helping small farmers in Asia produce rice using water-saving techniques. Dr. Neil Renninger of Ripple Foods is committed to promoting the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. David Lacy’s company Smashmallow produces healthy indulgences! Blair Cornish of Harmless Harvest talked about the company’s commitment to supporting “fair to life” practices for the farmers that supply their coconut water. Bentley Hall of Good Eggs talked about how the company curates their offerings based on strict criteria of transparency among other things. Good Eggs also has a reputation of being a great place to work, where their values and their culture are synchronistic.

Then in the course of the discussion, one of the panelists mentioned that their company was trying to negotiate with Walmart to carry their product. It was in the context of how Walmart wanted the wholesale price to be insanely low.

Something in me snapped.

I just envisioned a Walmart cashier, scanning the $5 box of coconut water, made in Thailand in a certified “fair for life” coconut farm, while she has to get food stamps because her full time job at Walmart doesn’t pay her enough to make ends meet.

Walmart is, and this is fact, a company that is constantly being sued for illegal labor practices. Gender and sexual discrimination in hiring and labor. I could go on, but I imagine if you are reading this, you get my drift.

To me, this isn’t a whole lot different than the restaurant who touts itself as “farm to fork”, as a better way to eat, but still pays its servers tipped minimum wage and managers are harassing women in the kitchen. To me, this defies a value-driven mission statement.

Personally, I do not patronize restaurants that I KNOW have unfair labor practices. I don’t care if they have three Michelin stars (I don’t know if they exist, but I wouldn’t go to them if I knew). So I don’t shop at Walmart. Yes, they do employ alot of people, but why can’t they just treat people with dignity? Is that too much to ask?

What would happen if Coca-Cola decided it wouldn’t sell to companies like Walmart until they treated employees with respect? Would Walmart shift? Could it be possible to create a #MeToo movement that would cause this shift?

( A little plug for Good Eggs here: If grocery stores could all be run like Good Eggs, maybe the world would be a better place, just saying…)

So that’s my question: If the #MeToo movement can have the wide-spread impact on attention to harassment, if Dick’s Sporting Goods can say they refuse to sell guns in their stores, why can’t food producers refuse to sell to companies with unethical business practices? What kind of change could that cause in the way large companiesĀ  are run…



Empty Storefronts

I live in a small town outside of a big town. Whenever I tell people I live in Alameda, they say, “I love Alameda, it’s so cute!” This five-mile long island that sits along the southern edge of Oakland, is separated from 2018 by three bridges and two tunnels. Coming upon Alameda feels a little like the 1950’s, which may be why people think it’s so “cute”. It was once home to a Naval Air Station and half the island still has homes that look like barracks. On the other half of the island there are old Victorians, a neighborhood called “The Gold Coast” because of the beautiful front lawns and the old mansions. It is a bit idyllic.

I live on the East End, close to the older homes away from the Naval Base. Park Street is our main shopping stroll. Lately, I’ve noticed so many empty storefronts. It’s alarming to me. The restaurant next door to the movie theater, down the block another that has been empty since we moved here four years ago. The old shoe store on the corner closed. A huge space where a Mexican restaurant used to be sits vacant. I can count at least one vacant shop on each side on every block.

There is some good news. We have a few outposts of some really great local businesses. We have a Burma Superstar (originally in SF on Clement), The Star (an extension of the Little Star brand), our very own Scolari’s (with an outpost at Alameda Pt). We’re getting a Cholita Linda (from the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, they better open soon!!)

I once owned a restaurant with my husband in the Ferry Building in SF. In those days, the Ferry Building was just opening up, and the mission of the folks who developed the list of tenants was to have a good representation of small artisan businesses from the Bay Area. Slowly, over the course of the last fifteen years, the tenants of the Ferry Building still represent local businesses. However, for most of the them, the Ferry Building outpost is only a small segment of their business. Many of them have big money behind them.

Which is to say merely this: Entrepreneurs who create small businesses must at some point partner up with bigger businesses to scale andĀ  compete. As long as a small business keeps it’s focus, and maintains some independence, it can benefit those investors as well as the communities they serve.

For me, I never thought I would think that way. However, my community comes first, and empty storefronts don’t serve the community..