Some cities were built on rock ‘n roll. Chicago was built on industry, and the startup scene, particularly the foodie one, has never been healthier!
According to Steve Gaither, CEO and founder of ad agency JB Chicago, and co-founder of CPG consulting and investment expertise firm Windy City Food Brands, “The startup community is flourishing in Chicago. From the Good Food Business Accelerator to ICNC to the Hatchery, entrepreneurs of any stage now have access to the resources, connections and capital at their fingertips. While Chicago’s history is built on food manufacturing and distribution, its future will be led by the innovators.”
Here are just a few of those innovators to which he’s referring…
Foodies’ Little Helper – Tovala
Tovala, a Y Combinator startup, is a smart oven with benefits that include a chef-curated meal plan that plays to the “restaurant-quality food at home” crowd through an array of convenient dishes that perform well on both taste and nutrition. Originally looking for $100,000 on their Kickstarter campaign, the project is now fully funded by more than a thousand backers who have contributed $255,603.
Users can go to the Tovala app to choose their meals for their week, with options including foodie flavor combinations like black pepper and coriander-crusted salmon, ginger-marinated pork or miso-glazed sea bass.
To start cooking all you will have to do is scan the barcode on the meal’s packaging and press start, with the machine’s WiFi-enabled automation taking care of the rest. The Tovala uses a bespoke combination of cooking methods, timing and temperatures for each dish, meaning each meal comes out the way it was intended with no preparation or cleanup required.
Unlike some other smart appliances that lock you into suppliers-only products, Tovala made the sensible decision that their smart oven can also be used to cook your own food and reheat leftover food – those additional processes may take a longer time than your standard microwave oven, but the product claims to produce better results.
The estimated retail price of the oven will be $329 (shipping available throughout the US) with pricing per meal around $10 to $15 depending on ingredients. That’s not cheap, but if you’re into experimenting and going beyond traditional cooking methods by employing both wet and dry heat – think chicken that’s juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside – and preparation times that are incredibly short, this is an option worth watching.
Drinking Outside the Box – Bonfire Wines
With 25 percent of wine being consumed during out-of-home activities like going the beach or picnicking, bag-in-box packaging or brick packaging is a popular solution for “anytime” wines – it’s lighter than glass and comes without the possibility of shattering and injury.
Bonfire Wines have source reduced the concept of bag-in-box through effectively losing the box, and redesigning the pouch so that it will stand up on its own. They’ve also equipping the bag with a high tech, ergonomic tab dispenser for “POURtion” control. The patented design includes a built-in handle making it really easy to carry – all it takes is two fingers. Boating aficionados will be pleased to know that should the vino take a dive, the package will float.
Bonfire Wine’s packaging is not only lean, it’s also green. The company expresses a strong commitment to reduce waste, energy and water usage in both its processes and packaging materials. The company’s growers use sustainable practices like covering crops to add nitrates to the soil without fertilizer, limited water usage of vines, and “hold-backs” that preserve the vineyard’s natural wildlife habitat. And when it comes time to ship it out, the wine’s packaging is BPA-free and has 80% smaller carbon footprint than the equivalent glass bottle.
Says Bonfire Wines Millennial Founder and CEO Eric Steigelman, “People come out with new products all the time, and oftentimes it’s without considering the impact their product and packaging has on the environment. Today’s generation is not OK with that, and as a company, neither are we. For that reason, our production, packaging, and distribution are all done with both our environment and our consumers in mind.”
The price point is targeted at cash-strapped millennials — think the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. — with the average retail price for a Bonfire Wine pouch being in the $12.99-$14.99 range; a good value since each pouch carries one and a half liters of wine, making it two bottles in one. For those who hope to make it last, it’s worth noting that with each pour the package deflates, minimizing the wine’s exposure to oxygen. This allows the wine to stay fresh for up to four weeks post opening date.
Waste Not Want Not – Zero Percent
Named one of 50 Chicago startups to watch in 2016, Zero Percent, a startup based at 1871, is working to put surplus food to good use. The amount of food that is wasted and that lands up in landfill is horrifying: the U.S.D.A. estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of food produced is discarded, while 1 in 6 Americans have difficulty finding enough to eat.
Zero Percent have developed a planet and people friendly solution to keeping food waste out of the landfill. It involves an online food rescue platform that streamlines the matching of businesses with excess food to local charities and enables the safe transportation of the food.
About 100 businesses — including corporate cafeterias, grocery stores and restaurants such as Lou Malnati’s and Hannah’s Bretzel — actively use Zero Percent’s platform to donate their extra food. Restaurants pay to use Zero Percent, which helps pay for the company’s operations; Raj Karmani, founder and CEO of Zero Percent, says that is typically $60 to $100 per month, depending on the amount of food being donated. The platform tracks more than 2,000 meals to 80 charities daily.
Nonprofits using the platform don’t have to pay, they just have to show up at the restaurants and get the food. Over a period of 2 years, Zero Percent has coordinated the donation of 1 million pounds of food, and expanded to Nashville and Minneapolis. “There is a need,” Raj says. “We have the supply, we have the logistics, all we need is to field the logistics. You solve hunger by consistently supplying food … how can we scale these logistics so we can get this food that is available.”
That’s where a crowdfunding platform, foodrescue.io, comes in, Raj says, “It asks consumers for $5 donations, which helps produce 15 meals. People can pick which charity their donation goes to, and it gets 100 percent of the donation.” Zero Percent has plans to use the crowdfunding platform indefinitely. With endorsements from nonprofits like Salvation Army as well as Einstein Bros, the bagel company, this company is definitely one to watch.
Chicago! Not only Frank Lloyd Write’s most beautiful great city, but also the city where you can eat, drink and be merry – while also feeding the hungry and saving money along with the planet. That’s my kinda town.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.