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Fancy food brands find growth potential in the pandemic

Fancy food startups found their way during the pandemic with mission-driven models.

6 min read

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Food topics have been front-and-center during the pandemic, from striking a balance between healthy eating and feeding comfort-food cravings to embracing cooking at home. How we’re sourcing food, how much we’re paying for it and how we’re navigating intermittent shortages in some categories have been top-of-mind topics for many of us for more than two years.

How we feel about our jobs, do our work and balance careers and home lives were also issues that surged to the forefront as COVID-19 upended many of our routines and got us thinking about making changes.

For some, food and career change came together in the form of specialty food startups that took root and began to flourish during a difficult time. Some were on display at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show when the event returned to New York City in person last month for the first time since 2019.

The sustainable spice of life

Bina Motiram and Dana DuFrane were working in corporate America when the pandemic hit and the sudden shift to remote work and being at home most of the time fueled a craving to create a startup that would fill a need.

People were cooking more at home and many were learning as they went, seeking convenience options and kitchen hacks to help them prepare new and different dishes. That brought to mind an idea Motiram had had years before for creating a line of spice mixes to help busy people get creative in the kitchen.

The pair crafted a business plan over Zoom meetings, Motiram said from her booth in the Fancy Food Show’s new products aisle.  They brainstormed ideas for creating a line of Indian spice mixes that would offer both convenience and a more sustainable and less-wasteful alternative to the racks and cabinets of jarred spices that often expire before they can be used.

SugarRoti officially launched in January 2021 and was part of the 2021 class of the Target Forward Founders program, part of the retailer’s Accelerators program. The spice packets contain all the organic spices needed to prepare full meals for four, and the packets themselves are compostable. 

Today, the spice blends are available for sale on SugarRoti’s site, which also features a blog with stories, recipe ideas and seasonal trends. 

Learning to fly

Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng met at UC Berkeley where they were studying molecular and cell biology and plant and microbial biology, respectively. The pair came up with the idea of a startup making vegan chicken wings and launched Sundial Wings in 2019 after moving east and winning space at the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University.

Unlike the now-familiar plant-based versions of boneless chicken nuggets and wings, the partners sought to more closely replicate traditional bone-in chicken wings using a short list of plant-based ingredients. 

Last year, the startup raised $4 million to further develop Sundial Wings, and launched the products in two test markets. Vegan deli and retailer Orchard Grocer in New York City and Foghorn Tap Room in San Francisco served the wings and gathered feedback from customers to further perfect the products.

Finding a sweeter balance

Thereasa Black needed a way to be home with her young daughter after years spent driving aircraft carriers while on active duty in the Navy, finishing law school and starting a legal career. 

Black, who believed in feeding her child a healthy whole food diet, lost that some of that battle while deployed when her daughter was in the care of well-meaning family members who allowed more indulgent treats.

In 2019, Black started Bon AppeSweet as a healthy gelato brand, and shifted gears when the pandemic hit the following year. Black developed a line of date-sweetened vegan chocolate bars that were easier to ship than the perishable gelato. 

Today, Bon AppeSweet sells its premium chocolate bars online and in a growing number of specialty stores. 

These days, in addition to being there every day for her daughter, Black is also setting an entrepreneurial example while furthering a mission of fact-based fairness and justice.

The brand’s logo is a tree of life built on an image of Lady Justice and Black says she aims to build a brand that brings people together to make the world better.

The power of influencers

Many of the startups featured at the Fancy Food Show are mission-driven and those missions often can appeal to the social media influencers who today play a key role in raising awareness about new brands. 

Target’s accelerator program for CPG entrepreneurs is designed to help startups get a foot in the door with retailers as well as winning over consumers and, in SugarRoti’s case, the focus was on finding ways to stand out in the very crowded spice aisle, Motiram said. 

Standing out in these times means winning over social influencers. SugarRoti has an active presence on Facebook and Instagram where it’s currently touting the portability of its spice mixes for summer vacationers.

That social media aspect has fostered the creation of a community around the brand that provides useful feedback, Motiram said in a recent interview on the Elevate Your Brand podcast. 

“We’ve created a platform for community where we want you to share your ideas, ‘cause no idea is dumb, every idea is amazing,” she said in the podcast. “We want you to  share how you’re using the spices, we want you to share hacks.”

Social media has been a key growth driver for other brands in the pandemic, including wellness brand Mighty Gum. Mathew Thalakotur created the chewing gum, which includes 100% of the daily recommendation for Vitamin D3 along with other vitamins, minerals and immunity boosting ingredients like ashwaganda, and launched the Seattle-based startup in February 2020. 

A month later, much of the world was focused on boosting immunity and seeking answers on social media. Mighty Gum worked with some influencers to raise brand awareness and the product took off, said Thalakotur.

“It just kept selling out and selling out,” he said.

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