Food entrepreneurs build business savvy with Humanim's School of Food

Running a food business can be "kind of like walking in the dark." School of Food works to change that.

The Big Bean Theory is "where all beans come true," Eula McDowell told about 30 attendees at the School of Food's Entrepreneur Demo Day.

Armed with the flavor of her red lentil soup and plenty of protein-packed puns, McDowell pitched an expansion of her bean business. The chef and owner of the Big Bean Theory, which offers bean-based soups, salsas and other foods, recounted how she started — from cooking black-eyed peas at a family Thanksgiving to selling at local farmers' markets to opening a brick-and-mortar shop.

"When you come to the Big Bean Theory, you're gonna find out that I'm a beanologist and they're bean-ilicious," McDowell said during her presentation at Pixilated Photo Booth Baltimore.

McDowell was the last of five food and beverage entrepreneurs to make her case at the demonstration day and pitch competition organized by the School of Food, a curriculum-based program that aims to remove barriers to success for local food entrepreneurs. Its 28 students attend nine monthly classes on topics ranging from honing a mission statement and crafting the perfect business pitch to complying with Maryland health regulations and capitalizing on the marketing power of social media.

The low-cost program, created by local nonprofit Humanim, also connects entrepreneurs with one another and with other helpful business contacts. At the Nov. 15 demonstration day, McDowell was vying for a chance to meet with the Baltimore Integration Partnership, a collection of the area's anchor institutions and nonprofits — and she won. The meeting is scheduled for January.

School of Food is just one of the channels through which Humanim uses the food industry to break down barriers to employment in Baltimore.

"It's one of those things that it doesn't matter your age, race, gender, socioeconomic status — you can come from all backgrounds and start a food business if it's something that you're passionate about and you have a quality product," said Kim Bryden, program curator for the School of Food.

Although launching a food business comes with relatively low barriers to entry, as with any startup, it's still a risky endeavor. Nationally, about half of all startups founded five years ago have since closed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most people who start food businesses make great products, Bryden said, but they may lack the savvy it takes to form a viable business around their food.

"In order for it to not be just a hobby, you need to learn all the important tricks to running a business," Bryden said. "So just in general understanding the scope of what does it mean to run a successful business is the overarching goal."

That much was true for McDowell, who sells her soups at the Mount Vernon Marketplace and is looking to grow.

"I'm always looking for a way to better present it; the food speaks for itself," McDowell said. "I'm very confident in the flavor of my food, but what I would like to do is find out how I can make a better presentation with the package."

Future classes will help her with that. The next session on Thursday addresses package design and labeling legalities. And a class in April will touch on visual merchandising and branding.

Now in its second year, the School of Food kicked off in September and runs through May. The program is opening the second half of its classes in 2017 to new students. While a full year costs $99, entrepreneurs can get in on the January through May sessions for $65, a low pricetag compared with more formal university business programs that can cost thousands of dollars.

While McDowell already has a brick-and-mortar location, other School of Food students, like Tamika Gauvin, own startups in their infancy. Gauvin also pitched her business, Looen Teas, at November's demo day. She showcased several flavors of her mauby, a traditional Caribbean tea made from tree bark, that she's working to take to market.

At an October School of Food class, Jeff Cherry, executive director of Columbia-based Conscious Venture Lab, taught her the formula for a perfect pitch.

"If someone had told me I had to make a pitch before the School of Food session, I would not know where to start," Gauvin said.

Now that she understands how to craft a pitch, Gauvin said she wants to learn more about packaging her product and securing funding for her business. She's in luck; in addition to this week's session on packaging, future School of Food classes will delve into financial forecasting and small business accounting.

Gauvin sees the School of Food as an avenue to get her products on shelves.

"It was kind of like walking in the dark and then all of a sudden somebody opened the door and there was this light," she said. "The whole School of Food program is going to really spell out things. ... It's just great that they can really unlock the mystery."

The first graduating class the School of Food churned out in May is a testament to its efficacy. One alum, Bottoms Up Bagels, is increasing its production at B-More Kitchen. Dominic "Farmer Nell" Nell of City Weeds is growing a microgreens business. Well Crafted Pizza launched a food truck. And Krystal Mack, who previously sold her ice pops and desserts exclusively at pop-up events, just opened her first brick-and-mortar location under a new brand, Blk // Sugar, at Remington's R. House food hall.

Nell, owner of City Weeds, learned about the program while he was photographing School of Food sessions and soon joined as a student. He started his microgreens business this year, selling at the Fresh at the Avenue stand at the Avenue Market in Upton and teaching students about microgreens in city schools. Dovecote Cafe recently signed on as his first restaurant client, and he's looking for more.

Nell partners with fellow School of Food student Juan Nance, owner of Healthy People Juice, to incorporate his greens into Nance's juice line. The two have collaborated on flavors like the green juice "Kale Yeah."

Nance said it was clear after attending the first two School of Food classes that he had a lot to learn. In September, he and other students heard from D.C.-based Misfit Juicery founders Ann Yang and Phil Wong about how to best communicate their mission and core values through compelling statements that stem from why they make their products.

"It allowed me to see that there's a lot more work that I have to do as far as honing my mission," said Nance, who hopes to build a range of products and services under a wellness brand.

For Nance and others, the School of Food has been as much about forming connections with fellow entrepreneurs and investors as learning business lessons.

"It's just being able to know who else is out there going through the same thing at the same time," Bryden said. "Being an entrepreneur is very lonely if you feel like you're the only one who's going through it."

Chad Ford, owner of Charm City Coffee Roasters, said that was one of the first hurdles he encountered when he launched his coffee roasting business in Highlandtown. He found it was difficult to even secure meetings with potential clients.

"One of the main surprises is just all the noes you get, or the trouble you find trying to get in touch with the right person at each business," he said.

Cherry, of Conscious Venture Lab, said that's no surprise.

"You're going to get many more noes than you get yeses," Cherry said. "I can't even tell you how hard it is because it's impossible to describe."

But School of Food teaches students what they need to know to get those yeses — and quickly.

"It's incredibly informative," Ford said. "I think the people so far that Kim [Bryden] has chosen to speak are spot-on as far as what I need and what other people in the class need."

For Bryden, watching School of Food students scale their concepts over the course of the program has been gratifying.

"We do have these stories of really palpably seeing a change in people's life paths," Bryden said.

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

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