Since starting the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network almost two years ago, one thing has been constant: the number of food and beverage entrepreneurs we come into contact with. These are smart, motivated people with great ideas and boundless passion. It is truly a pleasure to speak with them, provide advice/counsel/direction, and learn about where these pioneers are taking the food & beverage industry. (I also find myself energized after these meetings--it’s impossible not to feel this way given their energy and enthusiasm). But why now? Well, because there has never been a better time to start a food business. Here’s why:
1. The market is changing quickly, and entrepreneurs are often closer to consumer needs and trends than larger companies. Successful start-ups are finding the space between traditional brands and categories and creating news ones that meet specific demands for the way consumers are eating. So, if you’re offering a great-tasting, gluten-free, Paleo-friendly, Keto-inspired product, it could just be that the big guys haven’t seen this market. Or they have, and deemed it too small. This is where the opportunity in the new food & beverage industry is found.
2. There’s available talent and resources. For instance, in the Chicago area, there are a variety of boutique shops or independent consultants with deep food industry experience who can help bring an entrepreneurs vision to life. Add to that the depth of talent -- in food law, food finance, food safety, food manufacturing, food innovation, or food marketing – that will support your company as it grows. You can find what you need among former food company employees, experienced firms or even current corporate talent that could be lured away for the thrill of a start-up.
3. Access to manufacturing & communications channels. In the past, large food companies were the only ones that could afford the television and other media needed to get the attention of consumers. So, when consumers went to the grocery store, they looked for these familiar brands. Also, large companies owned all of the manufacturing assets/facilities, and smaller companies didn’t have the ability to compete. Today this, of course, has all changed in the world of social media, and the world or contract manufacturing. Not only can smaller companies find their customers through social media channels, they can hire contract manufacturers (many of whom run facilities that were spun off or closed down by large branded food companies) to create products that meet the needs of consumers.
4. A supportive environment. Tech start-ups have long been seen as a viable alternative in the industry to corporate jobs. We are now feeling the same way in the food & beverage world after watching dozens of start-up successes over the past several years: Chobani, Just Mayo, Sir Kensington’s, Skinny Pop, RX Bar, Justin’s, and the list goes on and on. There are also a variety of incubators and accelerators popping up around the country (especially in food and beverage meccas like Chicagoland!) that help to provide guidance and resources to entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Make no mistake, it’s still an incredibly difficult task to launch and grow a successful food or beverage business, but the barriers have never been lower. And organizations like mine are emerging to help get entrepreneurs and their start-ups the connections they need to take advantage of this incredible, innovative time in what was once a little bit of a sleepy industry. The world is changing quickly in food and beverage, and the industry and manufacturing implications are significant.
But if you’ve got that great, breakthrough food idea in your head, passion in your heart, and a spark to get it done ...why not now? What are you waiting for?
Alan Reed is executive director at Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network. For nearly three years, Alan has led and built this breakthrough mission-driven industry organization. Prior to this role, Alan was executive vice president, strategy and innovation, at Dairy Management, Inc., and was responsible for creating and driving innovative strategies to grow dairy demand.