America’s entrepreneurs aren’t all typing code in an attempt to develop the next social media success story. A growing number are transforming Americans’ palates by roasting unique coffees, crafting dried meats and artisanal cheeses and even distilling small batches of handmade liquors.
On a recent spring evening a few hundred people crowded into a high-ceilinged ballroom at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They mingled, quaffed glasses of wine and stood in long lines to sample food proudly billed as artisanal, small-batch and handcrafted. The occasion was the Next Big Small Brand Contest, a three-year-old competition designed to reward an ambitious food entrepreneur with the resources to, as the contest’s website promises, launch his or her brand into “superstardom.”
The contest’s six semifinalists illustrated just how broad the artisanal food spectrum has become. Competitors included a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, local, seasonal pie bakers and a husband-and-wife team who made raw, vegan, gluten-free snack foods. There was also bakery that reimagined all-American staples like whoopee pies and Pop Tarts and a woman hawking organic baby food.
The event wasn’t only about taste. It was, as one of the judges later explained, about market potential and the ability to match ideals with growth potential. New York-based Superfoods won the competition with an energy bar made from organic ingredients that impressed judges with both its taste and its marketability.
The issue of marketability is central in the burgeoning artisanal food market. While artisanal food producers like Superfoods have found success selling at market stalls and regional gourmet shops, many find it daunting to scale up production and distribution without compromising the small-batch ethos that defines their products.
The paradox of artisanal success
It’s hard to determine the size of the artisanal food market, but the better-defined organic foods sector accounted for $26.7 billion in sales in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey. However, the growing size of the market also means growing competition.
“There’s only so much shelf space,” says Kara Nielsen, an analyst who studies food trends at San Francisco’s CCD Innovation. Many artisanal products get lost in the crowd. According to Nielsen, the ones that survive “are going to find co-packers to make their product; that’s what happens when they get successful.”
However, this type of success carries its own issues. The bigger a company grows, the more it risks losing the small-scale, homespun feel that attracted customers in the first place.
That’s a gamble entrepreneur Loren Brill is happy to take. She won last year’s Next Big Small Brand contest by impressing the judges with her ambition to corner the market on all-natural frozen cookie dough. Brill, who is 27 and a self-described “cookie hustler,” spent the last year perfecting her recipes, scaling up production, re-designing her packaging and building her website. Her efforts have paid off. A year after winning the contest, her business has increased 400 percent. Her products now sell in Whole Foods, a high-end US food retailer, and she “absolutely” wants to be in supermarkets throughout the country. Brill firmly believes she can maintain quality while scaling up production.
The Whole-y Grail
Although placement in small, painstakingly curated gourmet stores is a good first step for budding food entrepreneurs, the Holy Grail is to get products distributed by national retailers, including Whole Foods, which Brill has done. “Many of the products are awesome, but we only have so much space. For each product we bring in, one needs to leave,” explains Sam Mogannam, the owner of San Francisco-based Bite Rite Market, an artisanal food retailer. He concedes that the North American artisanal food industry will grow if “supermarkets get on the bandwagon. If the artisan can only rely on small, boutique specialty markets, it will plateau. I think we will see a portion of the players take the plunge to growing and servicing the big stores, opening up space for newcomers.”
Today’s artisanal producers may be grappling with how to grow their brands without compromising their values, but they are not the first entrepreneurs to confront this challenge. Brill has found inspiration in Daniel Lubetzky, the creator of the now-ubiquitous KIND fruit and nut bars. “He told me, ‘This is going to be a hard road, but keep at it and you’ll get there,’” she recalls. “That was (the type of) realistic advice I needed to hear. It’s not just going to fly off the shelf. Building a brand takes years and takes tweaking. No one’s going to sell it better than I am, especially at the beginning. I just have to keep going.”
Rebecca Flint Marx writes about food and various other topics. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and GQ online.