By Annette Hinkle
In case you haven’t noticed, the food industry is booming — not just here, but everywhere. Nationally, cooking shows are all the rage as are locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Meanwhile, chefs (both professional and amateur) are developing imaginative new ways to use never before heard of products in their dishes.
It’s not just about the heirloom tomatoes, free range chickens or grass fed beef either. These days, food is also about spreading the word through social media, well designed websites and interactive apps that allow consumers and critics to share their love and passion for all things edible.
All of these trends were on full display at the 2015 Edible Business Conference held last weekend at Stony Brook Southampton. Sag Harbor’s Brian Halweil, editor-in-chief of the magazines Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, assembled the three day conference in conjunction with the new Food Lab at Stony Book Southampton.
The lab is a multi-faceted program that will serve as an incubator with a curriculum geared toward all aspects of the food industry — from growing and producing it, to teaching about it in a classroom setting and especially promoting food through the business of it. The Food Lab will one day include greenhouse facilities, an educational curriculum, gardens, vineyards and perhaps even chickens roaming the campus. But the centerpiece of the lab is the South Fork Kitchen, a commercial production facility headed by Amagansett Food Institute’s (AFI) Kathleen Masters with Carissa Waechter of Carissa’s Breads where local food purveyors can lease space for making their food products.
“The Food Lab formed because of this growing interest in all things food,” noted Geoffrey Drummond, the program’s executive director. “The Edible Business Conference is about taking a seed of an idea and envisioning where and how it might thrive, planting it, incubating it and growing it into a viable enterprise.”
“While you’re here, experience the campus and imagine culinary potential,” added Mr. Drummond who comes to the Food Lab after a 40-year career in film and television during which he produced the film “My Dinner with Andre” and collaborated with Julia Child in bringing food and cooking television to generations of culinary fans.
The conference, which was, of course, liberally punctuated by fine food and drink, ran from Friday to Sunday and featured a full slate of events and panel discussions. From the macro to the micro, a line-up of food business heavy hitters were on hand as well as local purveyors and growers. Among them were Andy Arons of Gourmet Garage, Daniel Lubetzky of KIND healthy Snacks and Tanya Steel, creator and executive producer for the annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids’ State Dinner with Michelle Obama. Terry Romero of Kickstarter also stopped by to encourage those looking to start food businesses to consider crowd sourcing as a finance model.
On the local level, participants included Holly Browder of North Fork based Browder’s birds, Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish, and farmers John Halsey (Milk Pail), Ian Calder-Piedmont (Balsam Farms), Steph Gaylor (Invincible Summer Farms) and Eberhart Müller and wife Paulette Satur (Satur Farms). Local brewers and winemakers also took part and panel discussions included “The Business of Seafood and Meat,” “The Business of Farming” and “The Business of Drinking.”
While the discussions were varied and far reaching, in many ways, connecting and communicating online was the overarching theme of the day. Among the participants in the “The Business of Tech and Media” panel was Tayrn Fixel, founder of “ingredient1,” a mobile app that gives users access to a massive food database based on topics such as taste preferences and allergies, and East End residents Dan and Julie Resnick founders of “feedfeed,” a digital cooking publication initially inspired by the produce grown at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.
“We created ‘feedfeed’ based on the way I cook,” explained Ms. Resnick. “All these CSA families were picking up the ingredients, but what do you do with the celery root or the carrots? We first started on Instagram and asked people to share what they cook.”
“Now our contributors are 18 to 25 year olds who are used to sharing everything in life,” she added.
Sharing, it seems, is the name of the food game these days and the idea of social media influencing how people communicate and spread information about food was evident in Saturday’s keynote conversation between author Jessica Soffer and Amanda Hesser.
Ms. Hesser, cook and culinary entrepreneur, is co-founder of Food52, a groundbreaking website which she created with Merrill Stubbs in 2009. The all encompassing food website was the first to rely heavily on crowdsourcing and reader expertise and when it was created, Ms. Hesser notes there was nothing else like it online.
“At the time there was a lot of brown food online, small photos and not much trustworthiness,” said Ms. Hesser. “We felt there was no site that spoke to us and reflected the changes happening offline with food. We wanted to create a place that we could feel was a home to us — inspiring and with great quality.”
Ms. Hesser added that Food52 is all about people showing off their food stuff. These are not necessarily trained writers or professional chefs, but talented, real people looking to express themselves.
“Home cooks moved from being excited and curious to owning their knowledge and pushing things forward,” she added. “You can do that online so much more effectively.”
“People want and crave guidance,” said Ms. Hesser describing how Food52 relies on crowd sourcing that is curated. “It’s not just about letting people participate. We’re guiding and weeding out along the way.”
Being a barometer of what’s next is important for any successful business person. And there are always interesting trends to be found, especially when one is paying attention to what those crowds are saying. At the end of several panel discussions, moderators asked participants to quickly name what they saw coming down the pike in their own particular food based business.
Here are some of their responses: “cashew juice,” “not kale,” “not glass,” “yogurt mayonnaise,” “Low glycemic food will replace gluten free and low carb.”
Then there was the trend that Ms. Hesser noticed occurring on “Food52.”
“Last year, we noticed gluten-free went way down and cakes went way up,” she said.
Now that’s the kind of food news we can all get excited about, and the type of trend Robert Reeves, associate provost of the Southampton Graduate Arts campus, feels will define the Food Lab going forward.
“The central interest of food education and media will become an important institution on this campus and in the East End community,” noted Mr. Reeves in his opening remarks at the conference on Saturday morning. “We have the 40th anniversary of the summer writers conference coming up. The Food Lab will be successful for the same reason the writing program has been — and confidentially, I think even more so.”
“Writers have an obligation to write, which often means staring at a blank piece of paper until their forehead bleeds,” he continued. “The Edible Business Conference is a much more agreeable combination of eating and drinking well.”