Silicon Chef: A Half-Baked Guide to Food Startups
[Updated 12/06/12 with additional listings] When the ex-CEO of Pure Digital, maker of the famous Flip pocket camcorder, wins funding from Sequoia Capital to open a chain of grilled cheese sandwich shops, it may be time to abandon your own enterprise-cloud-marketing-analytics-automation venture or your social-mobile-deals-gamification startup and think about getting into the food business.
I was already planning to compile a list of food-related startups for my column this week when I read about Pure founder Jonathan Kaplan’s surprise announcement. I happen to love grilled cheese, so I’m hoping that his new restaurants, to be called The Melt, fare better than the Flip camcorder, which Cisco recently discontinued after spending $590 million to buy Pure in 2009. The fact that Kaplan’s customers will be able to order and pay for their cheddar melts and tomato soup using their mobile phones is a nice twist. But the real message behind his move (and Sequoia’s investment) may be that food is back in fashion as an arena for startup founders.
Food-delivery startups such as Kozmo and Webvan were among the venture-backed companies caught up in the wave of dot-com failures around 2001, and years went by before technology entrepreneurs dared to venture back into the kitchen. But now they’re cooking with gas. Few urban-dwellers these days make a restaurant reservation without consulting a site like Yelp, Urbanspoon, or OpenTable. Smartphone and tablet owners can choose from hundreds of cooking, nutrition, and shopping apps. And there’s nary a venture incubator program without at least one food startup in its pantry (500 Startups has Spoondate, StartX has Kitchit, TechStars has Foodzie, and Y Combinator has Anyleaf, E la Carte, and Grubwithus, among others).
Here in San Francisco, a chocolate tasting organized by health-food search site Foodia last week attracted more than 400 young entrepreneurs—I know because I was elbowing them out of the way. There’s also a monthly meetup for hackers building food-related apps, and even tech publisher O’Reilly Media has come out with a cookbook. (It’s called Cooking for Geeks, and it’s really well done.)
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise—at a time when farmer’s markets are popping up in every town square, cooking and celebrity-chef shows keep multiplying on TV, and concern over the health impact of poor nutrition is growing—that startup types are trying to turn their food obsessions into businesses. With their usual ardor, these entrepreneurs are finding and fixing previously undiscovered inefficiencies in every part of the food business, from managing recipes and making grocery lists to reserving restaurant tables, reading nutrition labels, and figuring out which wine to buy.
But there are so many new food-related companies on the scene that it’s impossible not to wonder whether the market’s getting a bit frothy. Quick, can you tell me the difference between Foodbuzz, Foodia, Foodily, Foodista, Foodler, Foodori, Foodspotting, Foodtree, Fooducopia, and Foodzie? In the end, I suspect that there isn’t really room for three companies that page restaurant guests when their table is ready (No Wait, Textaurant, and ReadyPing), three marketplaces for artisanal food products (Foodoro, Fooducopia, and Foodzie), two members-only restaurant deals services (TipCity and VillageVines), and dozens of recipe search apps and sites. If DARPA were funding all this activity, it would simply hold a bake-off to find the top competitors. We’ll have to wait longer to see which of these startup soufflés get some lift, and which ones collapse.
Meanwhile, here’s today’s main dish: a list of all the notable food-related startups I could find in one afternoon of research. I tried to restrict this list to companies that are making significant use of software, mobile technology, or the Web (if only as a marketing and distribution channel). I focused my search mainly on companies in Xconomy’s home cities, especially San Francisco, and I deliberately didn’t hunt down the names of every maker of every food-related iPhone or Android app. So I know the list is incomplete. But if you know of a name that deserves to be added, please let me know in the comment section.
AgLocal—A service that “makes it easy and convenient for anyone to buy and sell locally raised meats.”
AllRecipes—Large online catalog of user-contributed recipes.
Anyleaf—Listings of local supermarket discounts; a replacement for Sunday coupon circulars.
Back to the Roots—Home mushroom growing kits using recycled coffee grounds.
BigOven—Web and mobile recipe organizer and shopping list maker.
BlackboardEats—Members get e-mails with 30 percent discount offers for select restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
Cater2.me—Group and event catering that connects companies with the local food scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Chow—Food-related news, entertainment, and instruction. Owned by CBS Interactive.
Cocomama Foods—Online vendor of gluten-free foods such as quinoa cereals.
Consmr—A social network that allows users to “check in” to the grocery products they’re eating.
Cookooree—Community recipe sharing “for the rest of us.”
Cookstr—Recipes from leading chefs and cookbook authors.
Daily Gourmet—E-mail newsletter offering daily deals on artisanal foods.
Daily Grape—Daily wine review videos from Gary Vaynerchuk, formerly of WineLibrary.tv.
DeliciousKarma—Members-only discount site site for artisanal and gourmet foods.