Chicago And Food

I go back and think about the first meeting we ever had of Hyde Park Angels, the angel group I spearheaded, in April of 2007.  It wasn’t a pitch meeting, but a “meet us” meeting at the Gleacher Center in Chicago.  We introduced ourselves and had some hors d’ouvres and cocktails.

The audience that was there were people who were interested in doing things with startups in Chicago.  Setting up an ecosystem had been tried a few times and always failed.  It failed for a number of reasons.

  • People had their hands out rather than lending entrepreneurs a hand up.
  • They tried to remake Silicon Valley in Chicago.
  • They charged entrepreneurs and they charged funders to participate.

When I was at the podium speaking, I was asked “Are you going to be like Silicon Valley?”

I was adamant.  “No.  We are going to be building companies that stand on the strength of why Chicago is what it is.”  Chicago is great at:

  • Finance/Insurance
  • Logistics
  • B2B sales
  • Marketing/Advertising
  • Medical
  • Consumer Products
  • Agriculture
  • Food

Chicago is the best restaurant town in America outside of New Orleans. If there is one things we know, it’s food.  It’s fitting the James Beard Awards are now here.  Charlie Trotter led a revolution years ago and chefs like Grant Achatz are taking it to new levels.  I like to tell people I eat my way through the city of Chicago and have a body that shows it.  We are more than just pizza, hot dogs, Italian beefs, great steak, and sausage.

Mayor Emanuel has done a very good job of attracting food companies to relocate their headquarters downtown.  This has brought density, which is important when it comes to developing an ecosystem.  Marketing/Consumer Products/Agriculture/Food Company personnel can randomly interact and create stuff.  Chicago has a deep bench in all of those sectors.

Two companies you can point to that are being built off the back of this ecosystem are Simple Mills and Tovala.  Both came out of Chicago Booth.  Each won the New Venture Challenge competition.  I am an investor in Simple Mills.  Origin Ventures led the investment in Tovala.  Origin also led the investment in Grub Hub when it won in 2006.  Simple Mills has become the leading gluten free brand in supermarkets across the US.  chicago

McDonald’s, Hickory Farms, and ConAgra all relocated downtown.  Kraft has been a mainstay of the northern suburbs for years.  Many smaller food companies are in the city as well.

Non-venture backed food businesses have been created in Chicago.  Rick Bayless Frontera empire is one example.  Potbelly is another. Portillo’s is another.  Recently up and coming chefs like Stephanie Izard have launched their own brands.

Chicago is a mecca for food.  If you are interested in doing a food startup, this is the place for you.

  • Hickory Farms! My first W2 job was at one of their mall stores. I had no idea they were still around.

    • Pointsandfigures

      I think they are owned by PE

      • Makes sense, as I recall it was a large privately held (family-owned?) business.

  • awaldstein

    wanted to get back on this as i found it interesting.

    the fresh food business is a problem wherever it is as it is chained to distribution.

    If–and i don’t–want to do any other businesses in food, and they were fresh, I would move closer to where the food is grown.

    the entire food biz is a disaster and disruption is imminent.

    • Pointsandfigures

      The last mile on fresh is tough. In an urban area, it’s easy. Suburban, easy. Rural, tough. Even though the food is mostly grown rural!

      • awaldstein

        Last mile on fresh in NYC is a nightmare if you add the cost of certs, processing, refrigerated vehicles, commercial plates, crazy liability insurance

        It can be done of course, look at Amazon. Just crazy costly in a business where ingredients have a 40% seasonal variance.