This July: Bootcamp for Budding Food Business Entrepreneurs

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Several years ago I worked as a professor at a military academy, so when I think of bootcamp, I envision of a squad of young cadets with the pangs of death in their eyes, knowing they will never be the same person after this experience. In fact, bootcamp classes at the gym evoke similar sentiments, and one of my friends attended a writing bootcamp in January, returning as if he’d been through editorial trenches, never again to let the word “had” go by without red ink bleeding from his eyes.

One thing is certain: Bootcamps are intense, transformative experiences. And Hope and Main’s Bootcamp promises to empower budding food entrepreneurs, but blessedly without the soul-crushing despair that usually accompanies growth. To anyone who’s been nurturing an idea for a food business and wants to know if they have what it takes to succeed, this one-day bootcamp will answer those questions.

Just as a reminder: Hope and Main is Rhode Island’s first food incubator, located in Warren. It provides resources, guidance, test kitchens and networking opportunities for start-up business entrepreneurs, connecting them with food producers, farmers and fishermen who work together to grow the local food economy. It’s a great place to begin for anyone who’s serious about seeing their ideas come to life.

Although Hope and Main has opened its doors for early-stage food companies for just over 3 years, the bootcamp is relatively new, debuting in May 2017. Among its first graduates was Shane Matlock of The Burgundian, which was voted by Motif readers as the Best Mobile Pop Up in 2018 for their out-of-this-world delicious Belgian style waffles. Another Bootcamp graduate, Michelle Cheng of Leafy Green Tea, is taking the state by storm with her Nitro Coldbrew Tea. I was fortunate enough to speak with both of them to gain insight to their Bootcamp experiences.

Shane came to Bootcamp having already taken an 8-week business course, and while he had the general know-how, he lacked the food specificity. “I needed to know how to narrow it down to food — how to make my concept of a coffee-and-waffle-serving bus work in Rhode Island, as well as practical resources, such as a commercial kitchen.”

But through the bootcamp, and the 6-week course that followed, he found the greatest benefit of this program was the people behind it. “We had panel discussions with Nick Sammartino [Nick’s on Broadway] and Ellen Slattery [Gracie’s and Ellie’s], who were really inspirational. They shared their personal stories, the lows and the highs. You come to understand the realities involved, and though there is a lot of reward in the risk, there is still risk.”

The Burgundian’s one-year anniversary will be celebrated on July 3 at PVDonuts, Shane has gone from a “happy disaster” to a thriving business. His waffles have popped up all over the state, from farmer’s markets to local breweries, partnering with other local businesses along the way, and now he’s looking forward to taking over the old North Bakery kiosk in Kennedy Plaza with Fēēkä, selling Borealis Nitro coffee, liege waffles and gourmet waffle wraps; launching his first food truck to travel to regional festivals and breweries; and debuting his successful Kickstarter-backed Double Decker Burgundian Bus, which will be in and around PVD and catering local events.

“More than anything else, the biggest benefit I found was the connections I made through Hope and Main. Because of my association with them, I was approached by other businesses for partnership opportunities, and we were able to help and support each other. That support system was so encouraging.”

Michelle Cheng said largely the same thing. “Hope and Main is more than just a place to use — there’s a whole group behind it. They never make you feel like you’re interrupting their day.” She, too, attended Bootcamp and stayed for the 6-week course. Although she knew exactly what she wanted and was prepared with business plans, labels and costs, she found the course pivotal. “Entrepreneurship is lonely,” she said. “Ric, Ali and Luca [of Hope and Main] — they’re not just like, ‘Here’s a key to the kitchen, use it.’ They’re looking for ways to connect people and to help. Whenever we have ideas but don’t know how to execute them or have problems or paperwork, they are there.” As the first person to open a tea business from Hope and Main, Michelle asked a lot of questions that hadn’t yet been solved, “And Luca was there with a giant binder of all the paperwork he found.”

Both Michelle and Shane will be attending the next Bootcamp, on July 21, this time from the other side: Michelle will be a panelist during the Q&A and Shane will be presenting on fundraising. Bootcamp runs from 9am – 4pm, with lunch provided, and is broken up into 45-minute presentations (think: market research, how to write a business plan, legal considerations) and ends with a panel discussion with those who’ve have started their own food businesses: two Hope and Main members, one non-member and someone who’s started a food business but since exited. The idea is to offer attendants honest answers to the question: Is this for me?

And if it is, Hope and Main offers the whole package: all of the technical resources, educational opportunities, connections, reputation and most importantly, the camaraderie, “The secret sauce to it all,” as Member Services Coordinator Ric Wild said.

Whether you’re simply looking to explore an idea or you’re already ready to jump in head first, Bootcamp is the perfect next step. In order to reap the rewards, you have to take the risk.

To sign up for the next Bootcamp on July 21, go to makefoodyourbusiness.org/event/july-bootcamp

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