Leading Through Innovation

Organic candy bars. Fair-trade shrimp. Mushrooms grown in coffee grounds

The Future of Food: How Alumni Are Driving--and Capitalizing on our Appetite for Food Innovation

Organic candy bars. Fair-trade shrimp. Mushrooms grown in coffee grounds. These are just a few of the culinary concepts that Haas alumni have been cooking up recently to satisfy--and capitalize--on our nation's seemingly endless appetite for innovation in the food world. Here is just a small taste of the enterprising ideas they are bringing to fruition.

A School Lunch Revolution

At Revolution Foods, school lunch means homemade chicken enchiladas, all-natural spaghetti and meatballs, and never-fried chicken wings--all with sides of fresh fruit and vegetables. Revolution Foods ferries 120,000 healthy meals a day to primarily low-income school kids in 30 cities.

"We have always been focused on students who haven't had access to healthy foods," says CEO Kristin Richmond, MBA 06, who co-founded the Oakland, Calif., company with Kirsten Tobey, also MBA 06.

Rev Food's meals meet federal subsidized lunch guidelines and the company's own standards for all natural, fresh ingredients, no corn syrup, no additives or preservatives, and no trans fats. Fruit and other products are sourced locally when possible. "The kids just love the fruits," Richmond says. "Peaches, nectarines, and kiwis have been a big hit."

Food Lit

For foodies who not only like to cook but also read about the culinary world, Leigh Flores, BCEMBA 11, has co-founded a new digital publication called spenser.

Flores helped launch the bimonthly in November after watching the success of similar digital publications in the home and interior design arena.

"Spenser," a Middle English word, refers to the person charged with sourcing food and provisions in a royal or noble household. The idea, explains Flores, is to highlight the food producers and distillers seeking out the best and most unique ingredients and methods in order to help readers "personalize food and drink"--the magazine's tagline

Pearls of Wisdom

Andrew Chau, MBA 11, credits author Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule with leading him and partner Bin Chen to their bubble tea venture. The pair boiled down their one area in which they had 10,000 hours of expertise to the Taiwanese beverage enhanced by tapioca balls or "pearls." Both had consumed it. In quantity.

They saw an opportunity to enhance the bubble tea experience with careful sourcing of premium ingredients. Their gut instinct proved right: Pop-up appearances and a Boba Guys storefront in San Francisco's Mission District have been warmly received.

Chau estimates that the shop serves 70 percent of its tea to non-Asian clientele and posits that continued cross-cultural influences--or mashup--are the future of food. One indicator: Boba Guys' homemade syrup mixed with their own version of horchata, the popular Latin American rice drink. Says Chau: "It's been our most requested drink by far."

Sharing His Bread and Butter

Semifreddi's is all about the simplicity of flour, water, and yeast. The bread is never sliced or stuffed in a plastic bag. Transfats and preservatives are a no-no. The whole grain, non-genetically modified flour is grown in Idaho and Montana.

"We just continue to do the basics," says Tom Frainier, BS 79, MBA 81, CEO of Semifreddi's Handcrafted Bread & Pastries, who runs the bakery and is partners with his sister Barbara and brother-in-law Michael, also Berkeley grads. "We believe that the company is only as good as its last baguette." But that claim understates Semifreddi's mission, which includes a commitment to the community and environment. Green thinking drove every decision in the company's 2009 move to a 33,000-sq.- ft. Alameda, Calif., facility, which bakes more than 200,000 loaves of bread and pastries each week. The bakery boasts substantial energy savings, recycles 95 percent of its waste, and donates fresh bread and pastry to community organizations every day. Frainier says, "We feel that because we've been successful, it's our obligation to give back."

A Natural Move for Safeway

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway launched its Open Nature natural food line in January 2011 because that's where the market growth is. Between 2009 and 2010, natural and organic food sales rocketed 9 percent to nearly $39 billion, according to market researcher Packaged Facts. Conventional grocery sales lagged, growing less than 2 percent year over year.

But because the FDA doesn't regulate the definition of natural, "the term's inclusion on food packaging has left consumers skeptical of the claim," says Mei-Mei Stark, MBA 96, director of innovation for Safeway Consumer Brands. That's why Safeway set specific standards for Open Nature, explains Stark, who helped create the line. Among Safeway's standards: All Open Nature food comes from natural sources, with no artificial ingredients added, and all dairy products are artificial growth- hormone-free.

The Open Nature line covers more than 30 categories, including meats, cereal, ice cream, frozen pizza, and peanut butter. More natural products are on tap for 2012.

From Desk to Dirt

In between slow roasting Roma tomatoes with Rocambole garlic for an omelet or writing a cookbook, evening-and-weekend student Aaron French, MBA 12, has been stewing over the health of our economy.

French is chef of The Sunny Side Cafe, an acclaimed breakfast and lunch spot with two locations near Cal, and author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook. His latest endeavor: developing a business plan that harnesses the benefits of local and urban food production for workplace wellness programs.

"Organizations are looking for ways to encourage their members to embrace healthy eating and active lifestyles," he says, "and urban farms need additional revenue streams." French envisions urban farms on corporate campuses, with employees working alongside farmers, learning about healthy cooking and eating, and sharing in the harvest.

French looks forward to blending his MBA knowledge with his melange of skills to make a difference in food production and consumption. After all, he says, "Food forms the most intimate connection that we have to our environment."

Back to the Roots

Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, both BS 09, tossed aside job offers in investment banking and consulting for...mushrooms. The pair created their company, Back to the Roots, after hearing Haas Lecturer Alan Ross speak on the potential to grow gourmet mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds, and trying the technique in the kitchen closet of Velez's fraternity house.

By the end of last year, the company had used 1 million pounds of coffee grounds, primarily from Peet's, for its $19.95 home mushroom growing kits, which have been featured in the New York Times, Sunset Magazine, and Oprah. In the spring, the company moved to a 10,000-sq.-ft. Oakland warehouse.

Arora believes the company's success reflects consumers' growing desire to know about their food's origins. "It ties to our vision for our company. We didn't want to name it XYZ Mushroom Farm," he explains. "It's more than just coffee and mushrooms. It's really becoming that brand that connects people again with their food."

Expanding the Fair Trade

Frontier Paul Rice, MBA 96, launched Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) in 1998 as a market-based approach to alleviating global poverty. Thirteen years later, consumers are more mindful than ever about their purchases and U.S. retail sales of Fair Trade goods have reached an estimated $1.5 billion. Now Rice is looking to expand Fair Trade certification into other commodities and onto larger farms.

Fair Trade USA audits and certifies that farmers and companies are complying with rigorous standards for ethical sourcing and sustainability. This results in direct benefits to farmers and supports sustainable agriculture.

Over the next two years, Fair Trade USA plans to expand from staples like coffee and chocolate to fruits, vegetables, and even apparel. And instead of limiting the Fair Trade designation to smaller farms and co-ops, Rice has launched a Fair Trade for All campaign to improve wages and conditions for farm workers on larger estates.

"The $3-a-day farm workers on big Latin American estates are the poorest of the poor," Rice explains. "Our market approach is a path out of poverty for these workers and their families that avoids creating dependency on foreign aid. For me, it's all about empowerment."

I can't believe it's gluten free!

In 2002, Dan Regan, BS 95, and his wife, Allison, learned Allison had celiac disease, an increasingly common immune system reaction to the protein in wheat and other grains. Disgusted that every gluten-free dessert she tried tasted like cardboard, Allison went on a mission: to make a better gluten-free flour.

Mission accomplished, the couple opened the gluten- free Sweet Cake Bake Shop in Kaysville, Utah, in 2009. Sweet Cake churns out red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, chocolate whoopie pies, caramel bars, sticky toffee pudding cakes, and cinnamon raisin bread. "Now half of our customers aren't gluten-free. They don't even realize that it's gluten-free," Dan Regan says.

The U.S. gluten-free food and beverage market has risen 30 percent a year between 2006 and 2010 and is expected to expand from $2.6 billion in 2010 to $5 billion by 2015, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. Similarly, Sweet Cake's sales have doubled year over year, and the Regans plan to open a second Sweet Cake shop in Salt Lake City.

Trick or Treat, Organic Please!

Scott Kucirek, BS 88 (Engineering), MBA 99, reinvented himself as Piedmont, California's Willy Wonka for a simple reason: He wanted a better candy bar.

"At Halloween my kids brought in sacks of horrible candy bars," says the father of two, who previously co-founded ZipRealty. "They taste good, but they're really not the best for you."

So Kucirek co-founded OCHO with Denis Ring, the creator of the Whole Foods 365 food line, making all organic bars from simple recipes. (OCHO stands for organic chocolate.) The bars have just five or so ingredients and no preservatives or additives. They come in four varieties: caramel and nut; coconut (most popular); mocha; and peanut butter (Kucirek's favorite).

Kucirek hopes to expand OCHO, now stocked in every Northern California Whole Foods store, throughout the state and lower the $1.99 price to get better candy in the hands of as many kids as possible. "Do we believe at some point these bars can compete with non-organic candy bars at Safeway and Costco and gas stations? Yes," Kucirek says. "We've always figured that if people had a choice, and the price is close, they'd choose ours."

More stories on Haas alumni innovating food:

Cheese Wiz: John Foraker, MBA 94, leads Annie's beyond the kids' menu to an IPO

Towering Achievement: L.A. super chef and food entrepreneur Eric Greenspan, BS 87, reinvents an American classic

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