Updates from Challenge prize Silver winner, The Food Corridor:
Kitchen-sharing platform launched in Colorado in June
Invested winnings in robust terms and conditions and vital operational tools
Development process was customer-centric, ensuring the strongest solutions for customer needs
Advice: "Pitch, even if your company is young"
Ashley Colpaart is a food system innovator whose business helps other food innovators. Inspired by other sharing economy businesses — Uber, Air BNB — The Food Corridor brings together commercial kitchens that have excess capacity and nascent food businesses in need of kitchen space. It’s a win-win for all players, offering restaurants and school kitchens potential new revenue sources, and giving food producers a foot in the door to develop their products and grow their businesses. Since taking a silver prize in February at the 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize, Ashley launched The Food Corridor’s platform in Colorado, taking on the first stage of building her market of commercial kitchens. We recently caught up with her to find out how her novel idea is moving forward.
Food+City: When you competed at the 2016 Challenge Prize, The Food Corridor was less than a year old. Can you take me back to the a-ha moment?
Ashley Colpaart: In 2015 I was on a panel in Washington D.C. for the Community Food Project Grants. My job was to review all of these applications and decide which ones were going to get federal funds. Many of the projects wanted to build infrastructure, like processing and distribution centers. But their business plans weren’t always very strong, and a lot of the projects lacked an asset mapping of what infrastructure already existed in their community. I was thinking, “How do you know you need to build this facility?” During that trip I stayed in Air BnB and I took Uber for the first time, and it dawned on me that the sharing economy that exists in other sectors hasn't been applied to the food system. And sharing itself is something that we do with food all the time. We break bread together, people have been sharing kitchens for a long time, co-ops started in agriculture — so I thought, why not apply that same model to the food sector? I chose to do it with kitchens because it's where a meal starts.
How did your experience at Prize help move The Food Corridor forward?
AC: I got paired up with Trish Wesevich, who owns Capital Kitchens, a shared-use kitchen in Austin. I couldn't have asked for a better mentor match. She was so supportive and really helped me see some of the strategic holes in my idea. We had monthly Skype calls where I asked her a million questions, and she gave me feedback. One of the biggest things she helped me understand is that each region — and each public health department — has its own rules and regulations. Some cities are more willing to try a new idea than others. So for us to grow, we’d need to move into cities that want to support food entrepreneurs and are willing to work with you, instead of the more stringent ones that tend to have more barriers to entry.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in this entrepreneurial journey?
AC: I heard from other people who had worked on software solutions for shared-use kitchens that the business idea wasn’t getting across to the developers — they didn’t listen to the customer. So I have taken a really proactive approach in going through a customer-centric development process. We beta-tested our software with 12 shared-use kitchens nationally. We watched them use the product and listened to them talk about their business models and what features were essential for them. Then we prioritized those features and built them. And then the next week, when we beta-tested again, we let them test out the new features they just requested. We had a very fast, responsive process that allowed us to build something folks are going to love. Of the 10 kitchens that finished the beta process with us, seven converted to customers. Something Trish said really stuck with me: “When you're building a new product, you can build something and maybe people will want it. But if you really listen to the problem your customer has and build a solution for it, that's when you win.”
What did your Prize winnings make possible?
AC: We've recently developed our terms and conditions, which may seem mundane, but we're a platform dealing with multiple users and insurance and all sorts of complexities, so having strong terms and conditions was really critical. We've also bought subscriptions for internal process management software for our team to be efficient, and servers for our product to be developed. Five thousand dollars may not seem like a lot, but when you're a bootstrapping startup, $5,000 can be a make-it or break-it for you to get to the next phase.
What did you have to let go of as things evolved?
AC: My vision for the company is the same. How I'm going to get there is changing. In building a marketplace you have to have supply and demand. Successful marketplaces have supply and demand matched up, but you can't turn on those funnels overnight. I'm pivoting a little toward the kitchen supply first and then I'll zag back to the demand side, the food businesses. For example, we’re starting with incubator and commissary kitchens. Their model is already to rent out commercial space. They do this for a living. Partnering with them has taught us what the process is for a successful model and the user flow for doing it right. When food entrepreneurs that are looking for space can go to our platform and find three kitchens in their area that have underutilized spaces they can rent, then we’ll have built the marketplace that folks are looking for.
How do you see the future of The Food Corridor?
AC: What's cool about my idea is that it can be applied to any commercial kitchen asset. Like refrigerated trucks, or backhauling produce, or freezer or refrigerator space. If a farmer has a bumper crop of tomatoes or there's a hail storm coming that weekend and they want to harvest before they go to market in a few days but they don't have a refrigerator, they could hop on The Food Corridor and find some commercial refrigerator space where they can store it for a few days. I see The Food Corridor becoming a pipeline of innovation for the food industry.
Over time, we're hoping to add other sharing opportunities and services — like insurance, regional sourcing, labeling, marketing, distribution — so they can come back to The Food Corridor as they progress their business through all these stages and find the infrastructure they need to get to that next stage. When people start asking for those services, we can create strategic partnerships to bring more value to the users on the platform. That's definitely part of our long-term focus.
What's really interesting about local and regionalized food systems is that they're place-specific, and because of that they have unique attributes and needs. In one area, the kitchen space may be all folks really want. But cold storage and trucking may be what another community really wants. We want communities to lead that conversation.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who may have just the seed of an idea?
AC: When I pitched at the Challenge Prize, my company was very young. Being able to tell your story in front of an audience at Prize, around experts in this area, is an amazing opportunity for you to think about your company in a new way — about what will work and won't work and get honest feedback. Putting yourself out there at that type of event is critical to the success of your company. I really encourage folks to take advantage of that opportunity and that community.
Are you the next Food+City Challenge Prize winner? Apply for the 2017 Challenge Prize today!