Is Austin a Hotbed for Food Startups? Survey Says…

Tuesday night four academic institutions came together to encourage Austin to think about how to take its place as a hub for food entrepreneurs.  Rice, The University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, and Boston University brought together their collective alumni organizations to host an evening of discussion and exploration of Austin’s home-grown food innovators.

Often taken for granted that Austin is a “Foodie” city, the city known for its weirdness is seeking a way to play a role in the surge in startups in the food system. Charlotte, Detroit, Denver, and Seattle are creating almost as much buzz as San Francisco and Brooklyn. What can Austin offer food entrepreneurs in this increasingly competitive environment?

Five panelists offered their insights: Kevin Longa, a Silicon Valley film entrepreneur, Matt Gase, founder of Stubb’s BBQ, Curt Nelson co-founder of Austin Foodshed Investors, Sara Brand, co-founder of 512 Brewing and founder of True Wealth Innovations, Erin Harper of the Whole Foods Local Producer Loan Program, and Melanie Haupt, food historian and author of Austin Restaurants: Capital Cuisines through the Generations. Tom Stevenson of the Rice Alliance and Encendrejoined Dr. Robyn Metcalfe, Founder and Editorial Director of Food+City to moderate the panel and invite audience participation.

While the question about whether Austin is or could be the next hotbed for food innovation wasn’t conclusively answered, the audience and panelists offered some advice and direction for how to view Austin’s potential.

Melanie Haupt suggested that Austin’s long history of innovation grew from food entrepreneurs who took advantage of a “cultural moment.” One moment was the arrival of the music industry, another was consumer demand for a local source of beef processing, and a more recent moment is the desire for a closer connection between food producers and consumers. Austin food entrepreneurs have observed these moments and built startups that stood the test of time.

Whole Foods Market took advantage of one such cultural moment when its founders observed a growing interest in organic, healthy food in the 1970s, which led to the creation of a market shaped by a grass-roots community in Austin. Erin Harper pointed out that Whole Foods now has a deep understanding of the ecosystem of food entrepreneurs who continually keep the companies supply pipeline full of new and healthy foods. Mr. Longa shared his insights from Silicon Valley and his observations of Austin during his brief visit to Austin. He advocated Austinites to just “be Austin,” much to the delight of the audience, who appreciated his recognition that Austin has a unique character to offer entrepreneurs.

Curt Nelson and Sara Brand spoke to the need for investors to realize the importance of food startups and the unique needs that food startups seem to have. Nelson advocated values-based investing, much in keeping with Whole Food’s philosophy, and Brand pointed out the importance of aligning consumers and investors, pointing out that women participate in over 80% of food purchases while 4% of funders invest in food startups run by women.

Matt Gase offered his advice for startups who reach a level of success that invites a change in their business models. Gase notes now large food companies are looking for strategic investments in smaller, more innovative entrepreneurs. Food startups in Austin should be aware of these developments and prepared for suitors.

The discussion of how to move Austin forward in a more connected and intentional food innovation hub will continue. All those interested in participating in ongoing discussions should contact Food+City to get on the list for notifications and newsletters. Contact info@foodandcity.org

Want more highlights from the panel? Search #ATXfoodstartup on twitter.