Kevin Warnock

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Food Entrepreneurship: Surviving the Recession – Strategies to Remain Profitable in Hard Times

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Networking hour at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum, September 22, 2011. Photograph by Kevin Warnock.

Networking hour at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum, September 22, 2011. Photograph by Kevin Warnock.

The Lester Center for Entrepreneurship has been hosting The Entrepreneurs Forum for about 20 years. I have been attending the forums for about 19 years. I have written occasionally about some of the events, such as when the finals for the Berkeley Business Plan Competition are held.

I have never tried to simply write about each forum to spread the word about what goes on there. I am a big fan of the forum, and I like to blog, so you would think it would have occurred to me to blog about each forum. But I didn’t think to start regular blogging about the forum until yesterday afternoon, hours before the forum last evening.

I brought my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera and shot some stills and video. I uploaded the stills at full resolution. Click once on a picture to present it alone on a webpage, and then click a second time to enlarge the picture to full 21 megapixel size.

Cupcakes by That Takes the Cake cupcakery, 2271 Union St., San Francisco, CA

Cupcakes by That Takes the Cake cupcakery, 2271 Union St., San Francisco, CA

The title of the forum this month was Food Entrepreneurship: Surviving the Recession — Strategies to Remain Profitable in Hard Times.

Here’s the description of the event from the website of the forum:

“The Bay Area is home to many innovators in the food industry. Each year, new food start-ups crop up at the ready to take their products to market. It is a notoriously competitive industry, made more difficult in a down economy. Come hear from Noah Alper, the Founder and former CEO of Noah’s Bagels, and in-the-trenches executives of food companies as they discuss lessons learned in the challenges of a down market and how their companies have responded to them.

The evening will also include a special networking hour, prior to the panel, featuring displays from some of the Bay Area’s most beloved, as well as up and coming food companies including 18 Rabbits Granola & BarsAlicia’s Tamales Los MayasBridge Brands ChocolateCasa de ChocolatesFavaSlow Girl Foods and Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods. [note I removed one of the companies linked to from the forum website because there appears to be a technical problem that needs to be fixed before visiting.]”

This session sold-out Andersen Auditorium last year and is not to be missed for anyone interested in the business of food!”

There were perhaps a dozen food businesses in attendance. To promote their products, each business set up a table in the Bank of America Forum, the large lobby area outside the Anderson Auditorium where the forum programs are usually held. The food was delicious and photogenic.

The panelists Bob Burke, Joel Gott and Noah Alper were engaging and entertaining. I learned a lot about the restaurant business, a business I knew little about before this forum. The panel was moderated by Greg Beattie, a Partner at MBV Law.

I was surprised to hear Burke give what I thought was a good word for Groupon, a company I don’t think much of. He said it’s expensive but it drives instant traffic into restaurants.

All the panelists were very bullish on social media. Burke said traditional media like print and radio has mostly been supplanted by social media. Burke advises some fancy restaurants. I was surprised social media is now so important to costly restaurants.

Perhaps the most famous panelist was Noah Alper, the founder of Noah’s New York Bagels, which he built into a chain of 38 stores before he sold them in 1995 for USD $100,000,000.00. Noah’s Bagels is an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live.

Alper warned against giving out free product to drive store traffic. He said Noah’s Bagels tried that once and their stores were overrun with guests for the day of the promotion. However, he said traffic died back down to exactly normal just a few days later. The result was they had given away a ton of bagels for free with nothing much to show for it.

Gott said that the employees his businesses are able to hire during this recession are truly outstanding compared to during the original dot com boom in the late 1990s. He said they get stacks of resumes from great candidates. He said employees in San Francisco cost him 5% more than elsewhere, a figure I was surprised by since the City requires restaurants to provide sick days and health coverage, unlike almost all other jurisdictions in the United States.

Noah Alper, founder of Noah's New York Bagels, September 22, 2011. Photo by Kevin Warnock.

Noah Alper, founder of Noah's New York Bagels, September 22, 2011. Photo by Kevin Warnock.

I met and spoke with the founders of two of the exhibiters:

Arcelia Gallardo - chocolatier and owner, Casa De Chocolates, September 22, 2011

Arcelia Gallardo - chocolatier and owner, Casa De Chocolates, September 22, 2011

Casa De Chocolates — Arcelia Gallardo, chocolatier and owner — casadechocolates.com

I was drawn to Gallardo’s chocolate display by the sparkly sheen of the shiny smooth half spheres of rich chocolate. The sparkles were reminiscint of metalic automobile finishes — I’ve never seen such beautiful chocolate before. I spoke for a few minutes with Gallardo, and she told me how she got into the chocolate business. Sadly, I didn’t write any notes, and over the excitement of the rest of the night I forgot what she said. Here’s what the ‘about us’ page of her company’s website has to say about Gallardo:

“Arcelia Gallardo, owner and chocolatier, is passionate about pre-Columbian culture, chocolate and food. She started the company after graduating from UC Berkeley while working at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena and has received training from world renowned pastry chefs Ewald Notter and Andrew Shotts. She was also a chef instructor at the Summer Cooking Academy in Los Angeles where she taught children and teenagers to work with chocolate.”

Derrick Jones, founder of cookie and truffle company Derrick Sky, September 22, 2011

Derrick Jones, founder of cookie and truffle company Derrick Sky, September 22, 2011

Derrick Sky — Mr. Derrick Jones, owner — www.derricksky.com (note that you must prepend ‘www.’ to derricksky.com or the website won’t load)

Derrick Jones started Derrick Sky in 2009 after he almost died due to his undiagnosed food alergies. I tried all of his company’s products on display without knowing the story behind them. The products were apparently all vegan, delicious, inventive and scrumptious. It turns out they are perfect for those with allergies. I normally avoid gluten free products since I’ve assumed they sacrifice taste. But Jones’ products were really tasty, and I wasn’t aware I was eating something special for those with restricted diets.

The food at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum is always delicious

The food at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum is always delicious

The Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum is captured to video by a professional videographer. The full video is typically posted to the Lester Center website a couple of weeks after each forum. The official videos don’t include two key parts of each forum — the networking hour and a sequence of short ‘elevator pitches’ called ‘the numbers.’ I made a recommendation last evening to the videographer that he begin taking video of the elevator pitches. I think these pitches are part of what makes the forum special. I am fond of these pitches because I was a ‘number’ in early 1999 and I raised money for my first Internet company as a direct result of that pitch. I think these pitches should receive a wider audience than just those in the room, which is why I have decided to capture and publish them until the forum itself takes over, if ever. Note that I will be very upset if these videos are ever used to get somebody in trouble. The Berkeley Entrepreneurs Forum is a small gathering of smart people. If people ask for something in a pitch, please don’t give it to them casually. Investigate carefully, and be sure to comply with rules of the relevant authorities, such as the United States Securities Exchange Commission. By posting this clip and ones like it in the future, I do not intend to make any public offering, and I do not intend any harm to any presenter. I do not know any of the ‘number’ presenters.

[Note: I am a member of the Advisory Council for The Entrepreneurs Forum but I am writing here as a private citizen. The views I express here are my views alone, and I do not represent the Advisory Council, The Entrepreneurs Forum, The Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, the Haas School of Business or The University of California.]

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