Food Network star and Johnson and Wales University ‘94 alumnus Tyler Florence had been looking for a way to give back to his alma mater for his fiftieth birthday. He spoke with leadership at JWU in Providence, and they came up with a way for him to help future food entrepreneurs.
JWU tapped into Florence’s expertise to provide guidance and feedback to students for its Future Food All-Stars Challenge. Florence was recently named the university’s first Food Entrepreneur in Residence, and in advance of the challenge, he met monthly with students to work with them on strengthening their business plans and to prepare them for the competition.
The “Shark Tank”-style food product challenge involved eight student teams from across all JWU colleges, who spent the semester developing business plans, and turning product and service ideas into concepts that culminated with the live pitch competition to investors. The winner would receive $10,000 to help bring their idea to fruition.
Last week, the top three finalists, Hemply Rooted, Sunflower Kids and Wonderland went head-to-head in the challenge. They were evaluated by a panel of judges that included chef Florence himself (virtually), as well as College of Food Innovation and Technology (CFIT) Dean Jason Evans, Ph.D., Michael Rypka (’96), founder of Torchy’s Tacos, and Mary Meixell, Ph.D., Dean, College of Business.
Here’s how their pitches went down:
Hemply Rooted’s three JWU student partners started out with a cheeky opening.
“Do you smell something?” asks Asia Vo.
“It kinda smells like weed, but also something tasty at the same time,” says Maya Alderman.
“It smells like someone is having a good time,” adds Jessica Hess with a laugh.
That dialogue got the audience’s attention, that’s for sure.
Hemply Rooted is a food product company dreamed up by Hess, Alderman and Vo that incorporates hemp into its condiments. The first product in the line is a Japanese-inspired tsubomi chili crisp oil, which is chili-infused oil with bits of crunch that can be used to accent avocado toast, salads, dumplings and more. The business partners plan to address a gap in the market of hemp-flavored products as well as tap into the potential for growth it has in the food industry. Each six-ounce jar of the tsubomi chili crisp oil contains one gram of hemp.
“From its citrusy zing to its earthy and fruity undertones, hemp has the potential to be the next best herb,” says the team from Hemply Rooted. “We utilize traditional Japanese ingredients in addition to Lovewell Farms’ 100 percent sustainable and organically grown hemp to create a phenomenally unforgettable and earthy chili crisp oil that you can use to elevate any dish.”
After Hemply Rooted went over the company’s financials and potential profit margins, the judges offered feedback. Several wished for tasting spoons to be able to try the chili crisp oil (unfortunately, the JWU regulatory guidelines did not allow for the tasting of these products during the competition). Florence remarked that they could have won the whole competition if judges had been allowed to actually taste it. The judges also recommended the team make developing their product their sole focus rather than devoting time to other projects at the same time. Lastly, they suggested lowering the price point per jar, even though the team says they researched similar hemp-based food products in the market and offer their products at a lower cost than the norm.
“Listening to your final pitch, I am so incredibly proud. I think your business has grown leaps and bounds from a conceptual standpoint, and I think there’s really something there. I’ve got a couple of thoughts and maybe a little tough love,” Florence says. “$25 a unit is way too expensive for a product. At $25 a unit, it better be so incredibly delicious. It better come with dumplings,” he says with a laugh.
Hemply Rooted is in the process of making their company official. Through the competition, they report that they have interested investors.
Next up was Sunflower Kids with a proposed business plan that supplies nutrient-dense, single serving meals designed for school-aged children that are delivered to homes on a weekly basis. The co-creators are JWU students Julianne Surrette and Kayce Jernagan.
“Our product and our company is a nutritional health program for your children. Teaching them what they should be eating at what age and how to slowly acclimate it into their lives,” they say. “We are also allergy-friendly and customizable to any dietary need that your specific child has.”
Surrette is a graduating senior and a food and beverage entrepreneurship major at JWU, who has significant food allergies. “This product was really important to me because growing up as someone with multiple food allergies, walking into the lunch room was not a fun zone for me,” Surrette says. “I couldn’t have what they were serving, and on the days that I could potentially eat it, I’d have to ask what was in a product, and the lunch ladies couldn’t tell you what it was. For someone with an allergy, that is a very dangerous zone.”
Her partner, Jernagan, grew up in a small town in Indiana that is a food desert, and the idea for Sunflower Kids also stemmed from witnessing the impact of unhealthy school lunches in her hometown. She also worked at a summer camp with 300 kids that they would feed lunch. “Time and time again, I’d watch kids look at their soggy green beans and brown carrots, and they see the shiny cookie in the corner, and they eat the cookie and run back to playing and don’t eat the rest of their lunch.”
Surrette and Jernagan’s Sunflower Kids vegetable-based lunch packs involve items like rainbow pasta, pinwheel sandwiches and grain bowls. And the best part is that parents don’t have to worry about packing lunch for their kids, because the meals come ready-to-eat.
“We aren’t just for the students, we’re also for the parents. Your child is the most important thing in the world. You want to spend as much time with them as possible and it’s hard enough to get them up in the morning, fully dressed, and out the door,” Surrette says. “This would help parents with a smoother morning, giving them the chance to spend more time with their kids and sit down and eat breakfast rather than rushing to pack their lunch while also kicking them out the door.”
Judges’ feedback included questions about packaging and how to keep the product fresh for the whole week if it is being delivered on Saturdays; and questions like “how do you reheat the product?”and “have you done test studies with kids to see if they would eat this over time?”
Surrette and Jernagan say they surveyed 200 kids, asking them what they would want to eat to come up with the menus. Items would be served cold without the need for reheating. Florence suggested they think about test studies for freshness longevity (possibly by freezing and thawing the product), and include reheatable options for lunches that can be served in an insulated thermos.
Zacharie Curry rolled his way into the presentation of his concept, Wonderland, on a skateboard. Wonderland is a fast-casual restaurant and an indoor skate park under the same roof, Curry says. “The two concepts will be separated by a plexiglass window so our diners can see exactly what other customers are doing on obstacles,” he adds. “This is what gives our concept the flagship statement ‘dinner and a show for the price of a burger and fries.’ ”
There are numerous skate parks throughout the New England region, including in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, but they are located in warehouses, and that is what sets Wonderland apart. Plans include a state-of-the-art facility created by professional skate park design team members as well as professional athletes, in addition to an on-site restaurant serving healthy quick-service options.
As for the food, “Our main competition falls in the fast food category,” Curry says. “That’s where most people who are in action sports go after a skate park session. It’s quick, easy and convenient.”
However, Wonderland plans to provide healthier fast food options by using local, sustainable ingredients, and plant-based alternatives like Impossible burgers and mushroom-fried chicken sandwiches.
There will be both food and play in the same location. “Winter months in New England will directly drive [guests] to the indoor skatepark, and parents want a location to drop off their kids and not have to deal with them for a few hours,” Curry says with a laugh. He says the target market is action sports athletes (teenagers and young adults); and “young parents who want their kids to grow up in a fun, unique, cool and mainly safe location.”
Curry cites three different pieces to his product strategy, including the skate park itself, a skate shop selling relevant skating industry products and the restaurant. He concludes that Providence is the right location for his project.
“A lot of people I talk to in the restaurant industry say that Harris Avenue in Providence is a very important area,” Curry says. “It has seen breweries, restaurants and small businesses pop up there.”
In potentially building Wonderland, Curry also plans to consider environmental factors like electricity audits, composting, featuring sustainable menu items and locally sourced ingredients. He hopes to get involved in the community through hosting events, jams and trick competitions, as well as supporting the Grind of Life, which helps get underprivileged children from low-income housing areas access to the necessary equipment they need to perform at indoor skate parks.
The hard part is the money, of course. “We’re going to need a big chunk of money, about $5,625,000 to create this state-of-the-art skate park and restaurant concept facility,” Curry says with a sigh.
Curry is passionate about the project because he’s skated for years and he also rides scooters with a group in Providence that also recently created its own small clothing line. Their T-shirts sold out in forty-eight hours, proving that there’s brand leverage. The judges remarked that Curry would need to do more research on monthly rent for a property of about 50,000 square feet. He’d have to decide if he’d pursue it from an option-to-own route, or renting route.
Florence recommends buying and flipping a warehouse and owning the property, rather than renting and investing in something Curry wouldn’t own. Then he’d have to figure out how he would profit from the center. “You have the day fee of $20 for three hours which is a solid number, and a per person ticket price for food,” Florence says. “I like the idea of including a merchandise company, which means there’s brand recognition.”
“Think about how many kids you think you’re going to get in, versus how much they are paying; the $20 for three hours, and then there are all those wonderful bells and whistles,” Florence says. “They’re going to get some pizza, buy a T-shirt and potentially pay to use the camera team to use the footage for social media.”
And the Winner is….
While some of the product pitches have the potential to turn into real careers, the students learned what it would take to launch their own food-related companies and become food entrepreneurs. It was a valuable experience for all teams who were involved, and a great introduction to the real world of business ownership. During the judges’ deliberation, the students also got to hear from JWU alumna Aura Fajardo Quintero, who started her own business, Aura’s Chocolate Bar, and recently won the Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream Pitch Room Competition, held at Hope and Main in October.
The judges were all impressed by each of the teams, but in the end, Surrette and Jernagan of Sunflower Kids were chosen as the winners. They took home a $10,000 prize that was contributed by Tyler Florence, JWU alumnus and judge Mike Rypka (’96) and loyal friends of the university, Dr. and Mrs. Robert Ducoff.
Now we’ll have to see where the students take what they learned in the challenge.
“Once you leave school, the real education starts. You have a solid foundation walking out of Johnson and Wales University, and then what you do with that once you step out of college is what really matters,” Florence says. “As we say in the South, ‘for every mile of road you lay, there’s two miles of ditch.’ We want to keep everyone out of the ditch and on the road and make sure you are as successful as you possibly can be, as fast as you can be, and that means the world to me.”
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