Starting a food business used to be the stuff of dreams. But the idea is becoming a reality for an increasing number of Bay Area entrepreneurs as new resources sprout up to ease the startup process and more shoppers reach for local, artisan products.
From affordable co-working kitchen spaces, to food business schools and stores that provide do-it-yourself goods, the Bay Area is brimming with tools to support the independent "craft" food movement.
While the Bay Area has long been a hub for foodies, much of the momentum for small food-businesses has developed in the last few years, said Ally DeArman, director of the Food Craft Institute in Oakland, which serves as a school for burgeoning artisan food companies.
The nonprofit education center offers courses such as the business of butchery, chocolate or coffee roasting, and broader business lessons that can apply across different food categories, such as financing a food business and a soon-to-launch course on marketing.
Christopher Stites had started roasting coffee and selling it online when he found out about the institute in fall 2014.
"At that point I had no clue or connection in the coffee industry ... I didn't really have a business plan," Stites said.
The experience he gained via the institute helped him turn his coffee roasting venture into a full-fledged business, Slojoy Coffee Roasters, which now sells its coffee directly to customers online and wholesale to restaurants, cafes, offices and churches. It operates out of Bay Area CoRoasters, a hub in Berkeley that provides tools, training and space to roast, package and buy beans from growers.
Launched in 2011, the institute is not the only educational resource focused on the food business. The Culinary Institute of America last year opened the Food Business School, which offers classes both online and in Napa focused on food entrepreneurship. UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business recently launched a Food Venture Lab, a course aimed at helping students define challenges in the food system and develop businesses to solve them, following a surge in popularity for food startups in the Bay Area. Christopher Stites, owner of SloJoy coffee, is photographed in a co-roasting facility in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. SloJoy is an example of a small food business that emerged from the Food Craft Institute to help meet the increased demand for locally made food. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)
Lori Phillips started her food truck business, Rocko's Ice Cream Tacos, roughly four years ago and was already two years into it before discovering the institute, where she took a course in business management.
She lamented not knowing about it and other resources when she was starting out. Among her biggest challenges was finding affordable space.
"It's hard to find space that is convenient enough and affordable, especially for people who don't have a product to market yet and no money," Phillips said.
There are some efforts in place to solve that. Several new companies offering shared commercial kitchen space have sprouted up in the Bay Area, a la the co-working office spaces such as WeWork that have become popular in the tech world. The Port Kitchens opened last year in Oakland's Kaiser Center, offering shared space for food businesses in the same way that its parent company, the Port Workspaces, provides office space for entrepreneurs in the same building. KitchenTown in San Mateo has a similar model, providing kitchen space with the infrastructure for scaling up food businesses including production equipment and warehousing.
Forage Kitchen is slated to open in the next month on 25th Street in Oakland's Uptown neighborhood, where founders Iso Rabins and Matt Johansen plan to offer co-working kitchen space, shared office space, mailboxes and resources such as business workshops with local experts. The Food Craft Institute will eventually move its headquarters into the same space, which will help build the network of food entrepreneurs, Rabins said.
Having been in the food industry for years, Rabins noticed that many people trying to open new food production businesses not only struggled to afford commercial kitchen space but also wanted help dealing with accounting or marketing. He hopes Forage Kitchen will provide that.
With more customers buying food that is unique, healthier and locally made, the network of emerging food businesses needing these resources could increase.
Total sales are still dominated by big brands, but large food companies have lost market share to smaller brands in many food categories in the last few years, according to the Specialty Food Association.
At the same time, government policies have changed to encourage small food businesses. In 2013, the California Homemade Food Act went into effect, allowing people to sell certain foods made at home that had been outlawed before the bill was passed.
Also, in 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted rules that allow entrepreneurs to raise money through small contributions from many individuals who expect to get money back if the company is profitable. Before the change, businesses needed to solicit investment from only accredited investors -- usually Wall Street types.
Many in the business expect the demand for local, artisan food to grow.
Elizabeth Vecchiarelli owns a shop on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland called Preserved, which provides tools, products and workshops for DIYers interested in dehydrating, pickling, cheesemaking and brewing, for example.
"These are old-school traditions," Vecchiarelli said, noting that an increasing number of people want to learn how to ferment and make their own food for health and economic benefits, as well as for the sake of nostalgia or a cool experience. She suspects a lot of the demand for local, artisan food comes from an increased awareness of the unhealthy aspects of processed food.
"There is such a disillusionment with what's in our food," she said.
Contact Annie Sciacca at 925-943-8073. Follow her at Twitter.com/AnnieSciacca.
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