Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kickstarting the Indie Food Scene

I've been a bad blogger, I know. I will not even tally up how many weeks have passed since my last post! So thank you for hanging in there. I intend to revive this blog - and indeed build it into something much bigger - in the coming months. In the meantime, let me ease back in by sharing a story I recently wrote for Edible Manhattan about Kickstarter and its role in funding a new crop of indie food entrepreneurs:


First published in the November-December 2012 edition of Edible Manhattan

When Dan Maniaci and Piergiorgio Maselli were Boston College students with an appetite for more than knowledge, burgers were a shared obsession. Sliders, Big Macs, Shackburgers, animal-style In-N-Outs—they devoured them all (Maniaci earned the nickname “Tapeworms” after scarfing 11 cheeseburgers in one sitting).
Still, for all the great burgers they could order while out, the two undergrads lamented the pathetic state of patties made at home: overcooked and drowned in ketchup. So they began making their own burger sauce in an effort to resuscitate the home burger experience.
From their tiny dorm kitchen, the pair experimented with recipes and tried them out at tailgate parties until they hit on their Top Secret Burger Sauce— Maselli likens it to “a zesty mayonnaise with some spice.” After graduating in 2010, they moved to New York (“burger nirvana,” says Maniaci) with big plans to launch Gotham Sauce Co.
But, like many would-be food entrepreneurs with little credit history and no collateral, they found the up-front costs—renting a commercial kitchen space, contracting with a manufacturer, securing the right permits—were out of reach. “We didn’t even bother going to a bank,” says Maselli.
In years past, their story would have ended there. Instead, this September, Maniaci and Maselli turned to Kickstarter, a three-year-old company on the Lower East Side whose Web site lets ambitious but underfunded entrepreneurs appeal directly to friends, fans and future customers who believe in their idea. They put together a video pitch explaining their quest “to give the homemade burger a better life” through their secret sauce. And they promised perks to anyone who made a donation—from “a warm and fuzzy feeling” for a $1 contribution, to a bottle of Top Secret Burger Sauce for a $10 pledge, all the way up to a gourmet tailgate party cooked by the two 24-year-old entrepreneurs for a $2,500 pledge.
On September 15, just four days into a monthlong funding campaign, they hit their $5,000 goal—modest seed money that would allow them to start commercial production and shop the product around. But contributions continued to pour in, from friends, family, classmates and random burger lovers. With more than a week to go, 950 people had chipped in a whopping $18,500.
Maselli, a New York native now in law school at St. John’s, called the tremendous response “a vindication” of the venture. He and Maniaci are finalizing arrangements with a co-packer and plan to ship their first products in December. Armed with bottles, they can also begin calling on specialty stores and supermarkets, he adds.
Welcome to the Kickstarter economy.
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