September PitchBreakfast features Charlotte’s food entrepreneurs

Pitchsters from Queen City Forward’s roster of homegrown talent present their ideas for solving food problems, from a local to a global scale.

As a self-avowed coffee and beer snob (and local food enthusiast), it makes me happy to see how Charlotte is quickly developing a “foodie” culture. I love local breweries, food trucks, and farmer’s markets.

So much so that, a couple years ago, Justin and I dreamed of becoming food entrepreneurs ourselves by starting a weekend farmer’s market in uptown Charlotte. We went so far as finding a prime piece of real estate that could host the market. But in the end, we decided to hold off on pursuing our idea further. Discussions with some wise hands at Charlotte Center City Partners revealed that previous efforts at a weekend farmer’s market in uptown might have been overly ambitious.

But after experiencing the energy at this month’s PitchBreakfast (and seeing other successful farmer’s markets sprout up organically in NoDa and Plaza Midwood), who’s to say that Charlotte’s city center isn’t ready for a weekend market of its own?

Each of the four pitchsters at this month’s PitchBreakfast were graduates (or otherwise affiliates) of Charlotte’s Queen City Forward, an incredible organization devoted to building up Charlotte’s social entrepreneurs—and the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. The pitchsters approached gastronomical problems, each from a different perspective: local, national, and global. (A fourth company,Code for Charlotte, led by Jim Van Fleet and Jill Bjers, pitched its concept for marshaling a huge corps of tech volunteers to promote citizen engagement in local government.) The promise in each idea left me dreaming again of the possibilities for our future in food.

Here are the highlights:

The Local: Food Innovation District

Lynn Shanklin Caldwell helped bring the Atherton Mill market to Charlotte. Now she has her sights set on an even more ambitious project: renovating the historic 180,000 square-foot Savona Mill and creating a food innovation district in West Charlotte. The completed facility would house a shared commercial kitchen, an incubator for food entrepreneurs, and a premier event facility, right in the middle of one of Charlotte’s underserved communities.

Think of all of the hurdles in front of budding chefs who want to start their own company. The Food Innovation District would be a collaborative hub for these food entrepreneurs, allowing them access to commercial kitchen space (rented on a monthly basis with no overhead), supply and product channels, and consulting on marketing and product development. All of the rest of us would benefit greatly from the fruits of their labor, in the form of delicious local foods.

Lynn has shadowed and learned from Union Kitchen and Mess Hall, similar projects that have enjoyed great success in Washington, D.C. The project is subject to a feasibility study, already underway.

The National: U Chef – The Culinary School in a Box

Mary Guin is one of those budding chefs who recently started her own local food company. A graduate of Johnson & Wales (as well as Queen City Forward’s ImpactU program), Mary has an innovative idea for teaching America’s inspiring at-home chefs.

U Chef delivers monthly packages to its customers. Each month’s delivery (which includes all of the non-perishable ingredients you need) presents a lesson in the principles of good cooking—similar to what professional chefs learn in culinary school (but at a fraction of the price). U Chef caters to those of us who are tired of following recipes and want to think “outside the recipe box.” One month focused on the building blocks for how to make pasta, with variations for different varieties. I’m personally looking forward to subscribing to U Chef—and for the upcoming month’s lesson on autumn pies!

U Chef is seeking connections to local food suppliers and investments to build inventory.

The Global: Mana Nutrition / Calorie Cloud

Mark Moore sees the cruel irony in the world’s nutritional problems: “half the world is stuffed, while half the world is starved.” His idea: kill two birds with one stone. Mark’s solution involves a clever collaboration between corporate wellness programs (in the parts of the world with calories to spare) and the provision of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (to the parts of the world with a deficit of calories).

Partnering with UNICEF and USAID, Mark helped to create Calorie Cloud, a for-profit company that provides a platform for the only global marketplace for calories. He also founded Mana Nutrition, a 50-emplyee non-profit company that produces energy-dense food bars at a facility in a peanut farm in Georgia. To help the parts of the world with hunger problems, the profits from Calorie Cloud fund the provision of Mana Nutrition bars to fight starvation on the “front lines of nutrition” in third-world countries.

For the parts of the world with calories to spare, Calorie Cloud helps to promote healthier eating and change wellness behaviors, a notoriously difficult tak. Interestingly enough, research from Duke and UNC has shown that the motivational force created by altruistic goals can be more effective at changing behavior than a simple command to “eat more vegetables.” Calorie Cloud has introduced challenges through corporate wellness programs with major U.S. corporations (JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, and Pepsi, to name a few). Calorie Cloud’s pitch to the directors of the corporate wellness programs is simple: if we don’t change wellness behaviors of your employees, you pay us nothing; but if we do, you pass along a small percentage of your savings (e.g., in health care costs) to fund Mana’s charitable mission.

Does it get any better than that?

Did you know?

September is Hunger Action Month. Here are some exciting upcoming events and ways for you to get involved in local food issues:

  • ThinkPlenty Unconference@809 (September 18-19): Queen City Forward hosts this two-day conference that brings together thinkers and doers, friends and neighbors, entrepreneurs and innovators who will rapidly build and prototype solutions to alleviate hunger and increase food access in Charlotte.
  • An Urban Barn RaisingFree Range Brewing (Sunday, September 20, 6–8 pm): This fun-filled evening mimics PitchBreakfast’s format and raises money to help local farmers fund their “big ideas,” projects that will help them farm better, smarter, and more sustainably.
  • The Innovation Challenge – Queen City Forward offers $10,000 in cash prizes to entrepreneurs with the best ideas for meeting food insecurity and hunger in the Charlotte community.