Foodies Rejoice! Food Startups & the Recipes to Success

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I have a confession to make: I am a fat kid trapped inside the body of a skinny man. Well, not so skinny anymore as my advanced age has slowed down my metabolism to the point where I have become more……”generously proportioned”.

I grew up in my families Italian restaurant where I was surrounded by all kinds of savory, caloric treats, so becoming a foodie was inevitable. But as fate would have it, I had spent more time helping my dad cook rather than eat. Regardless, my passion for food and cooking eventually led me to career in the hospitality industry.

After high school, I worked as a chef in the fiery and smoky kitchens of a casual fine dining restaurant. But as my dreams of gastronomic brilliance faded away like a contestant on Hells Kitchen, I realized I was not cut out for kitchen life.

Fast forward years later to a smarter, wiser and a hungrier man, I am happily getting my fill as a VC. So when I came across this Pando article discussing the rise of food startups, it got my juices flowing.

Having worked so long in the kitchen and now as an investor, I have some unique insights on how food startups can succeed:

-It won’t boil down to the startup that has the best tasting food. Although this may seem counter intuitive, startups like Plated and Blue Apron both have great food offerings that will be hard to distinguish from each other:

“I’ll see your Quinoa stuffed portobello mushroom and raise you one with my North African spiced shrimp!”

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*Courtesy of Plated

As you can see, when every thing sounds this damn good, its hard to pick a brand and stick with it.

-Food startups focusing on niche markets will win. Since it will be difficult to differentiate based on recipes alone, you have to put on your food goggles and narrow your focus.

IN’BOX is a NYC startup that got their niche right: they deliver tasty lunches to kids at school. I love how they cornered such a small but significant market.

As for existing food startups, you really do have to think outside of the meal box. I would do a Mongolian food week for example, or even something more unique like Ethiopian cuisine.

I would love to see a “Mom’s old school home cooking recipes” week.

-Different strokes for different folks: If you really want to get niche, come up with products catered to certain situations. Got a first date and want to impress the girl? Why not get the special “Hot Date” meal box?

Sounds ridiculous? Sure, but this is all about bringing personality to your brand, another

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way to set yourself apart from the competition.

-Determine who your customers really are. Plated is not for hipsters on food stamps, it’s for true foodies like me. Everything you do, from your marketing and branding, must be directed at these gastronomes.

They aren’t fools either, you really need to have a genuine love for food and understanding of food culture in order to win stomachs.

-Get your most loyal users to be engaged with the brand by allowing them to send in their own recipes. The best ones selected will be part of the next months meal box and get a cut of the profits.

I also recommend going beyond your own blog and asking users to share their favorite food stories.

By focusing on your most passionate users, they become your brand ambassadors, evangelizing the company.

Speaking of stories……

-Your brand has to tell a great story. This will be the true differentiator. I love Craft Coffee and the story they put behind their beans; they obviously care a lot about providing their customers with more than just a caffeine fix.

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*These guys really love their coffee! Courtesy of Craft Coffee

The most important thing to remember is that you are not selling FOOD, you are selling an idea and experience. Anyone can sell food – think about why people choose to dine at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant rather than the Olive Garden – it’s about the experience and ambiance.

Start focusing on the users and how you want them to experience your brand.

-The good old fashioned up-sell. There is a reason why the phrase “would you like fries with that?” has become synonymous with McDonald’s. Their fries are not only delicious, but a high margin item. That’s why they are so insistent that you add them to your meal.

Once you have a strong brand, you can always up-sell your customers with custom utensils and other kitchen related food accessories.

-Crazy ass marketing. Plated and Blue Apron should do something wild like hiring a celebrity chef to hand deliver a meal box to a lucky user and helping them cook that recipe.

Imagine Emeril LaGasse or Jamie Oliver showing up at your doorstep and offering to cook a meal with you!

If you want to get even crazier, host your own Iron Chef competition in the middle of Times Square so everyone can see your brand and product. That kind of brand exposure is pure gold.