These Food Entrepreneurs Are Hungry for Success

What drives entrepreneurs to take a bite out of the crowded, competitive food industry?

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Walk into any supermarket and you’ll see shelves bursting with a seemingly endless array of colorfully packaged foods and drinks, all promising to be the best: the healthiest, perhaps, and of course the most delicious. The trends driving food and health innovations are equally limitless — each year brings a new list of ingredients to eat more of and an equally long list of foods to eliminate. And venture capitalists can’t get enough of this cutthroat industry, with more than $1.45 billion invested across 247 food and beverage deals in 2018 alone, according to Food+Tech Connect’s 2018 investment report. So it would seem like being a food entrepreneur would be a piece of cake, right?

Wrong. For entrepreneurs looking to win over consumers’ taste buds, making it into the hallowed halls of the local supermarket is no easy feat. “Ninety percent of food products don’t make it past the hobby stage,” says adjunct professor Stephen Zagor, who teaches a class on food entrepreneurship at the Business School. “It’s a seductive business. You buy food, you cook it — so you think you can sell it. But it’s much more complicated than that. The number one cause of failure is running out of money. The subsequent cause is not understanding what it takes.”

What is it that makes the food industry such an irresistible, mouthwatering challenge? What follows are the stories of seven Columbia Business entrepreneurs who had an insatiable appetite for success and bottomless faith in their ideas. Some spotted holes in the market and created products that had never existed, like alcohol-infused pudding cups, while others took familiar staples, such as yogurt, and turned the product into something entirely new. All have overcome obstacles, tuned out the naysayers, and championed the products they so strongly believed in. Though these alumni not only survived but thrived, not all can be so lucky. Read on to find out what’s in their recipes for success, and decide for yourself if you’re craving a piece of this tempting yet treacherous industry.

Ladipo Lawani '17, co-founder and CEO, L&L Foods

When Ladipo Lawani ’17 was an undergraduate student at Knox College in Illinois, he served as president of the African Student Organization. When the school held its international week, his organization invited traditional African dancers to perform. Lawani noticed a disconnect — the dancers were a relic of 1800s Africa, not representative of the Nigeria he knew. He thought, The world needs to see how Africa has changed and evolved.

The desire to honor his Nigerian heritage and highlight a new, young African culture stayed with Lawani as he moved through his career. He started out selling cable services door-to-door and later worked in marketing at British American Tobacco. When Lawani decided to get his MBA — planning to work first as a brand manager at a large food company like NestlĂ© — he realized he wanted to dive headfirst into marketing his own brand rather than work for someone else’s.

Lawani formed the idea for his company, L&L Foods, before starting at the Business School; he wanted to take advantage of the School and its resources to refine his brand. He entered his company in multiple Columbia incubators and used it as the subject for all his projects. “I knew I wanted to solve a problem, and I thought the agriculture industry in Nigeria was being neglected,” says Lawani. “The agriculture value chain in Africa was broken — we were exporting large amounts of raw materials, like cocoa, but there were no indigenous chocolate brands.”

Lawani’s goal was to create a brand that showcased Nigerian agriculture and heritage while also making a product that represented, and catered to, a new generation of youth; over 60 percent of Nigeria’s population is under 25. Basing a company in his home country also meant he could bring value to this emerging market. “I realized that by working for the dominant value chain,” he says, “I could create more economic value locally and create more jobs.”

“I knew I wanted to solve a problem and I thought the agriculture industry in Nigeria was being neglected.” — Ladipo Lawani ’17

L&L Foods’ nut company, Mr. Ekpa, offers cashews, sugarcoated peanuts, and salted peanuts in colorful, high-quality packaging. Lawani says his goal is to offer a product that is easily recognizable to Nigerians while also elevating it to match the level of products being exported from Europe and the US. “I want our customers to see their culture in our product, but with quality packaging,” says Lawani. “Our vision is to one day be the household name for Nigerian indigenous brands of national quality.”

Lawani plans to expand L&L Foods guided by a moral compass, keeping sustainability, food safety, and local farmers top of mind. To support local farmers, give back to the community, and lower the level of carcinogens in the product — a common problem in nuts grown in Africa — L&L works with small, local farms to improve yield and quality. The company has a pilot running now that gives small farms guidance and management to improve the quality of both the peanuts and the lives of Nigerian farmers.

Visit mrekpa.com

Siggi Hilmarsson ’04, founder and chairman, Siggi’s Dairy

When Siggi Hilmarsson ’04 left his home in Iceland to attend Columbia Business School, he didn’t know that he’d go on to start a leading dairy company. But he did know that he yearned to broaden his world by moving to New York and getting his MBA and that he’d likely end up working for himself. 

Though upon graduating Hilmarsson did take a job as a consultant with Deloitte, by then he had acquired a new hobby: making skyr, a type of yogurt he ate as a child. Skyr was not sold in America, and in its place were overly sweet and processed yogurts. “I had my mom send me skyr recipes from home,” he says. “People had stopped making yogurt in their homes in Iceland, so she went to the library and found some old recipes.”

One of those recipes became the basis for his first batch. When Hilmarsson mentioned his hobby to the faculty member he worked for as a TA, Michael van Biema, he was shocked to hear that van Biema saw potential. “He encouraged me to make a business out of it,” says Hilmarsson. “He was my first investor.”

At the time, other yogurts on the market had more sugar than a can of Coke but were being branded as health foods. Hilmarsson felt driven to create a healthier product. “New businesses often work best if they are repackaging or repurposing old businesses,” says adjunct professor Stephen Zagor. Hilmarsson’s healthy spin on this staple did just that.

In 2005, Hilmarsson gave a sample to a friend who worked at the Manhattan cheese shop Murray’s Cheese. He hoped to receive feedback, but instead received an email that changed everything: the buying committee wanted to sell his yogurt. “That was the epiphany for me,” says Hilmarsson. “I had my first investor, I had my first customer, and I had something I truly believed in.”

“New businesses often work best if they are repackaging or repurposing old businesses” — Stephen Zagor

Hilmarsson quit Deloitte and rented space in a dairy plant at SUNY Morrisville in north-central New York. He sold Siggi’s in a farmer’s market in Manhattan and in Murray’s, and then expanded to about 15 stores in the city. The tipping point came when Hilmarsson donated yogurt to an artists’ retreat in the Hamptons. An attendee worked at Whole Foods and loved the yogurt. Before Hilmarsson knew it, he was on a plane to pitch Whole Foods.

The pitch went well — too well — and Hilmarsson struggled with the growing pains of scaling so quickly. The plant was not prepared for the large order, and the summer months required so much energy to cool the yogurt that the plant’s power system crashed. “It was the worst year of my life,” says Hilmarsson, “and the most expensive lesson I’ve ever learned.”

As anyone who has walked the dairy aisle in a supermarket knows, Siggi’s recovered. The brand now makes up 4 percent of the US yogurt market alone and is available in 15 countries. As chairman of the company, Hilmarsson is leading the charge for further international expansion this year.

Visit siggis.com

Kelli Lipson ’19, founder, Spoonable Spirits

As an undergraduate at Bucknell University, Kelli Lipson ’19 enjoyed making a sweet, ever-popular party favor for her friends: Jell-O shots. Upon graduating, Lipson followed a passion for cooking and baking and went to work for the Food Network’s Sandra Lee. Her time there opened her eyes to dessert trends.

“I saw a lot of cupcakes coming in the door,” says Lipson. “I thought there needed to be something just as convenient that can be passed and shared, but for adults.” That’s when she recalled the boozy treats from her undergraduate days, and thought an upgraded Jell-O shot might be the answer. When she left the Food Network to pursue her MBA at Columbia, Lipson capitalized on her courses at the Business School to help her launch Spoonable Spirits.

Though 152.44 million Americans have reported consuming flavored gelatin desserts in 2019, according to a consumer research firm, Lipson did not see anything on the market like her product— sweet, spiked pudding and Jell-O packed in convenient, single-serve containers. “I was shocked that there was no one else already doing it,” says Lipson. With flavors that contain 5 percent alcohol, from cake pudding to rosĂ© Jell-O shots, the line combines nostalgic flavors with an elevated adult twist. Was Lipson worried about entering the already crowded dessert market? “I knew the industry was competitive,” she says, “but every industry is competitive, and this was where I felt most comfortable.”

“I thought there needed to be something just as convenient [as cupcakes] that can be passed and shared, but for adults.” — Kelli Lipson ’19

Lipson hired a chef to create recipes in her own home, finding the perfect pudding base that would allow for flavor variations based on ever-changing consumer tastes. Where Lipson differentiated her business, though, was in her approach to scaling her company: She never raised capital through investment rounds or formally sought funding. Rather, Lipson entered — and won — contests, such as the SoFi Entrepreneur and Columbia Summer Startup competitions. This approach ensured Lipson’s autonomy and allowed her to scale the company at her own pace.

To reach customers, Lipson passed out her tipsy treats at events around New York City, from festivals to influencer gatherings and pop-up markets. This allowed her to gather email addresses as well as opinions and flavor requests.

Spoonable Spirits is quickly gaining momentum; products are available at pop-ups and events as well as online, and a feature on Good Morning America in April propelled the brand to a new level of success. Up next for Lipson: A brick-and-mortar location in Manhattan where she can pass out her treats to a crowded room as she did in her college days.

Visit spoonablespirits.com

Devon Briger ’99, co-founder, Project Juice

When Devon Briger relocated from New York City to San Francisco in 2011, she discovered that one of her favorite beverages was nowhere to be found: cold-pressed juice. Briger had interned for Kraft Foods during her time at the Business School, and that experience, combined with a longtime passion for health and wellness, made her think that satisfying her juice craving could also be a business opportunity.

Briger was introduced to her would-be co-founder through a mutual friend, and the two agreed there existed a market for this type of juice — made without heating and pasteurization and said to contain maximum nutrients— in the California health food community. “My co-founder, Rachel Malsin, had a lot of food allergies and I was an avid juice drinker, so it was logical for us to start something together since there was nothing like it in San Francisco at the time,” says Briger. “We were one of the first companies in the San Francisco Bay Area to offer cold-pressed juice.”

To get Project Juice off the ground, Briger and Malsin produced the juice in their own kitchens with small juicers and sold it to companies that wanted to provide their employees with a healthy beverage option at work. “Our first big customer was my husband’s company, Fortress Investment Group, and we would do weekly deliveries,” says Briger.

Briger opened the first brick-and-mortar Project Juice in Crocker Galleria — a mall for local-brand pop-up shops — in 2013, and was discovered there by venture capital company First Beverage Group. The firm’s investment allowed Briger to open two expanded-menu locations in San Francisco.

“We were one of the first companies in the San Francisco Bay Area to offer cold-pressed juice.” — Devon Briger ’99

“We realized quickly after accepting the investment money that we needed to be much more than just a juice company,” says Briger. So in 2014, Project Juice opened its first “large-format” store, which also sold smoothies, acai bowls, avocado toast, and paleo waffles. Today, cold-pressed juice represents roughly 30 percent of Project Juice’s business, with smoothies and food making up the rest.

Navigating the revolving door that is the health-and-wellness space is no easy feat. “We spend so much time on Instagram following what influencers are posting,” says Briger. “We try to stay three steps ahead of the trends, whether it is cleansing, paleo, keto. Every day we are tasting something new to tinker with it and come up with ideas for what’s hot right now.” And a commitment to understanding the market is surely what has helped Project Juice stay afloat, according to Zagor. “In wellness or in any other area,” he says, “the key to success is to understand the needs of the market.”

Though Briger and Malsin are dedicated to staying on top of trends in the wellness space, quality ingredients remain Project Juice’s top priority. “From the beginning with a business partner who has allergies, we have been super focused on transparency about the ingredients in our products,” says Briger. “We are mothers — we only make products we would eat ourselves or feed to our children.”

Visit projectjuice.com

Matt Bachmann ’15 and Ben Gordon ’15, co-founders, Wandering Bear Coffee

When Matt Bachmann ’15 and Ben Gordon ’15 walked into a classroom during their first year at the Business School, they were both holding mason jars filled with homemade cold brew coffee. They made an instant connection. The two immediately began talking about their passion for high-quality, delicious cold brew and bonded over their belief that there was room in the marketplace for the coffee they loved making. And they couldn’t have been more right: according to the market research firm Mintel, cold brew coffee sales spiked from $8.28 million in 2015 to more than $38 million in 2017.

The caffeinated duo put their heads together to create their coffee; years of making cold brew at home came in handy when perfecting recipes by hand. Then came the name. “Ben had come up with the phrase ‘The wandering bear never hibernates, and neither will you after our coffee,’” says Bachmann, “and we loved it immediately.”

In March of 2014, Bachmann and Gordon entered Wandering Bear in a Columbia Shark Tank competition and won. The $7,000 prize funded their first commercial-scale batch, and they launched the company with a direct-to-office subscription service — the first of its kind — that allowed corporations to purchase Wandering Bear cold brew coffee for workplaces.

“We isolate trend from fad. Whatever we do, we make sure it is right fundamentally for the category — coffee is not going anywhere.” — Matt Bachmann ’15

“We rented minivans and drove around Manhattan shuttling boxes into offices where we knew someone so that the employees could sample it,” says Bachmann. “We would follow up to see if any of the offices wanted to subscribe. That summer we built our base of 30 direct-to-office subscriptions.”

Bachmann and Gordon then concentrated on refining the product and making sure it stood out from an already crowded market. “What sets us apart has always been a combination of packaging and product quality,” says Bachmann. Wandering Bear uses beans grown in Peru that are certified fair trade and organic, as well as uses cartons, boxes, and kegs as packaging to fit both personal and corporate consumer needs. Plus, their coffee packs a punch: “Our products are some of the most caffeinated coffee products on the market, but they are also incredibly smooth, in part because they are packaged to stay fresh,” says Bachmann.

Wandering Bear is now sold online as well as in 4,000 stores across the country. Its coffees include straight black, mocha coconut, or vanilla coconut. Bachmann and Gordon are conscious of consumer trends but also believe that coffee is, in many ways, a constant. “We isolate trend from fad,” says Bachmann. “Whatever we do, we make sure it is right fundamentally for the category — coffee is not going anywhere.”

Visit wanderingbearcoffee.com

Gregory Ahn ’05, president and CEO, Folktale Winery & Vineyards

There are 8,702 wineries in the US today, most of which produce wine for commercial purposes. That makes for a lot of wine bottles and a super-competitive industry. But when asked why he chose to enter such a crowded space, Greg Ahn ’05 says that was exactly the appeal: “Having an open field with so many brands competing makes it even more tempting to jump in.”

This go-getter mentality was what motivated Ahn, in 2008 during the economic downturn, to launch a new wine company using the excess fruit other vineyards were unable to use and that would otherwise rot on the vine. “Out of that chaos,” he says, “came an opportunity to offer something very high quality at a reasonable price.”

Ahn adds, “We developed a portfolio that sourced grapes from different parts of California and had a wide spectrum of price points, from $10 to $100, hedging that by having diversity in our wines,” says Ahn. One brand from his portfolio, Bread & Butter, took off and was selling 200,000 cases annually within three years. In 2017, Ahn sold Bread & Butter to WX Brands.

Amid that success, in 2015 Ahn purchased Folktale Winery, a 15-acre estate property in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The winery had been founded by a couple in the 1980s and was not for sale when Ahn spotted it, but he made an offer strong enough to close the deal. “The area is a little bubble that had been put on pause since the ’80s but has been making a comeback in the last 15 years,” he says. “We saw the opportunity to address a void in the community.” Folktale wine is now available in 46 states at restaurants and independent stores alike.

“We developed a portfolio that sourced grapes from different parts of California and had a wide spectrum of price points, from $10 to $100, hedging that by having diversity in our wines.” — Gregory Ahn ’05

Over time, Ahn continued to identify what was lacking in his small community of Carmel-by- the-Sea and set out to build the businesses he believed would fill those holes. After dipping his toe in the hospitality pond with a wine garden and culinary program at Folktale Winery, Ahn dove in with the opening of a new restaurant, Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse, housed in a converted bank. He has plans to further expand in the restaurant world with a fast-casual concept, a bakery concept, and a subscription-based meal concept all in the works.

While it is important to Folktale’s success that the brand keeps its finger on the pulse of consumer trends and tastes — for example, Ahn is moving from fruit-driven to lower-alcohol, acid-driven wines due to changing consumer preferences — the real focus is on providing patrons with a unique and memorable experience. “What really makes us special is this region of California,” says Ahn. “Our hope is that when you visit us and eat in one of our restaurants, that you will love the food and wine and that it will represent the area. We hope our style of hospitality is what you ultimately remember — the way we make you feel is more important than what you actually ate or drank.”

Visit folktalewinegroup.com

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