Diner’s Notebook: Connecting local food with cash

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What’s the biggest problem for the local food movement? Some might say GMO drift, others might say competition from big food companies. But for those who are a bit more infrastructure-minded, the big problem is access to money and markets. If you’re an owner of a small food business or farm, it’s not easy to find money to scale up your operations. If diners want good, local food on their plates, there has to be a lot more farmers and producers growing and making it.

That’s where the new Good Food Business Accelerator comes in.

The name may sound slightly familiar. That’s because the organization that runs the accelerator, FamilyFarmed.org, also runs the Good Food Festival, Chicago’s annual tribute to all things local and sustainable. In fact, the idea for the accelerator came from the festival – or at least, from a part of it, an annual financing conference.

Jim Slama, founder of FamilyFarmed (the organization behind the accelerator), remembers one of those early attempts to connect small food businesses with money. “We had over 300 people at a conference, there were 20 deals pitching, and there was money in the room. But nobody did a deal!” Slama explained. “That wasn’t supposed to happen, but food investment was not hot at the time.”

These days, food investment is very hot, with angel investors and venture capital firms ready to sink their dough into farms and food companies. But often, those companies aren’t quite “ready for prime time” as Slama puts it. “They don’t know how to scale up, they don’t know how to talk to investors,” Slama says of these small food businesses. “Our goal is to work with these businesses and get them ready. It’s like a mini MBA program.”

One early success, from the days of the Good Food Festival, is FarmedHere, a giant urban indoor farm that now sells greens and herbs to grocery stores around the city. Thanks to the Good Food Financing Conference, FarmedHere got connected with plenty of cash and with their largest buyer, Whole Foods.

The idea of the accelerator: ramp up and systematize that kind of success. At the launch a few weeks ago, attended by the Mayor and the co-CEO of Whole Foods, Slama saw the possibilities coming to life. “When I looked around the room, there were now 40 angel investors, there were probably over a dozen venture capitalists and private equity organizations. There’s a lot of money at the table,” he remembered.

The new accelerator is already setting up its first round of deals. They’ve invited applications from companies and are winnowing the list down to a group of 8 finalists. Those finalists will get help creating a business plan, refining their marketing strategy and, eventually, they’ll be connected with money and buyers.

“We’ve got a great mix – we’ve got some farmers, some packaged goods companies, beverage companies, food service,” Slama described. Don’t be surprising if a few of those nascent companies are household names in a couple of years – all thanks to the business expertise and connections from the Good Food Business Accelerator.

Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.

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