Successful entrepreneurs should offer special products and learn from their experiences in the industry, founders of Washington, D.C. food startups said during a panel discussion on entrepreneurship in the food industry Tuesday.
Featuring the founders of Eat Pizza, JRINK and Snacklins and the CEO of Union Kitchen, the panel focused on starting a food business and how to grow that business to a national level. Student entrepreneurship group StartupHoyas, Students of Georgetown, Inc., GU Eating Society and Spoon University Georgetown organized the event, which was the fourth installment of the Food Entrepreneurship Series, a StartUpHoyas initiative that allows food startup founders to share their experiences in the food industry with students.
The event also included samples of the panelists’ products.
Each of the three startups featured in the panel got its start at Union Kitchen, a food business accelerator that works with entrepreneurs to develop their products and scale their brand to a regional and national level.
Cullen Gilchrist, the CEO of Union Kitchen, said that major consideration for Union Kitchen when choosing new business partners includes the applicant’s ability to learn and be coached.
“We’re looking for a person that we think is an entrepreneur,” Gilchrist said. “We think they’re smart; we think they’re going to hustle; they’re going to work hard.”
Gilchrist called the food industry a meritocracy, emphasizing that a food entrepreneur can be successful with good food and hard work.
“So much of culture is based around what we’re eating,” Gilchrist said.
The founders of Eat Pizza, JRINK and Snacklins each had distinctive paths to starting their brands, but they all noted the importance of being open to new ideas.
Andy Brown, the founder of Eat Pizza, a frozen pizza company, said he founded the business in January 2017. After partnering with Union Kitchen, Brown, a former DJ at The Tombs, went from having just a concept for “better” frozen pizza to having a product in regional Whole Foods markets in the span of three months.
Brown credits his swift success not only to the resources available to him through Union Kitchen but also to his own business strategy.
“As long as our product’s better and our price point’s competitive, we’ll continue to grow,” Brown said.
The concept of offering something other products do not is key for all of the panelists, who each credited their success to a unique aspect of their brand.
Shizu Okusa, co-founder of JRINK, a fresh-pressed juice brand, worked in the finance world before founding JRINK. The juice bar now has five locations across the D.C. area, including in Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom with a sixth coming soon in Eastern Market.
Okusa said that she saw a “market opportunity” for JRINK in D.C. Initially, Okusa and her business partner made juice in addition to their day jobs but soon realized that D.C. did not have many fresh juice shops, despite the growing popularity of the beverage nationwide. This market opportunity became the starting point for JRINK, which now sells its juices made-to-order, online and in-store.
Samy K, the co-founder of Snacklins, a vegan pork rind brand, got his start as a radio personality on the The Kane Show, a music radio program. Snacklins began as a challenge from a friend to create a product that tastes like a pork rind, or “crackling,” but is vegan — a pork rind without the pork.
He succeeded with a recipe featuring mushrooms and yucca. Snacklins now come in three flavors: Chesapeake Bay-style, barbecue and soy ginger.
Samy K named two things as key for an entrepreneur’s success. The first is reliable employees.
“You need a good team behind you,” he said.
The second thing that Samy K named is a “willingness to continue learning.” Samy K described how much he now knows about chip bags that he previously did not because of his willingness to learn about a new aspect of his product.
Okusa also noted the importance of continuing to grow one’s knowledge, particularly for entrepreneurs.
“A good entrepreneur knows they don’t know everything,” Okusa said.