Once we wrapped up our first assembly, Women in Leadership, we knew we wanted to push the envelope and find new ways to enhance the experience for Innovators in Food. Thanks to our awesome attendees, we were able to set the bar even higher with helpful feedback on what we could do better and high fives on what we did right. Innovators in Food proved to be a successful night of celebrating pioneers in food, unconventional eats and new perspectives in the food industry.
The night kicked off at the Louisiana Culinary Institute with a meetup where attendees enjoyed sponsor swag, an open bar and yes, lots of food from local companies. The food and drinks kept the room buzzing with energy as each featured speaker told their unique story and what they learned while forging their own path within the food space. From hots dogs to cannabis edibles, each speaker shared lessons recalling risk-taking in new markets, establishing a hierarchy of restaurants, or challenging vendors to make eco-friendly ingredients. Below, we highlight a few notes from each speaker summarizing the main takeaways in their presentations.
Food and Sponsor Social
We chose the theme Innovators in Food, because we wanted to showcase not just a variety of food but also a variety of experiences breaking new ground in the food space. Some of our favorite new food companies agreed to share stories based on their niche product in a popular market. (Watch our live interviews from the event.)
Indie Plate is a food delivery start-up producing meal kits that include prepped and chopped, sustainably-sourced ingredients. The kits are conveniently quick to prepare without sacrificing the fresh flavor. Attendees were able to choose a cold bowl with pork, tofu bacon, or grass-fed beef catering to a range of dietary lifestyles. Indie Plate introduced a quick, delicious dinner option to families searching to try something new at home.
The lead of our next food stop, Alex Barbosa, created the barbecue fusion brand Barbosa Barbecue. Barbosa fuses Texas-style barbecue techniques with an array of flavors from Louisiana flair to well-known Mexican favorites. Attendees were able to experience his newest creation, a Tex-Mex tostada dressed with beef short rib, refried beans, Spanish rice, pickled onions, and cilantro topped with Mexican cream and red chili salsa. Alex’s charm and tostadas stole the room easily becoming a crowd favorite in everyone’s mind.
Cousins Smokehouse was the brainchild of a group of guys who wanted to share their slow-smoked pork jerky family recipe with the public. We had the pleasure of sampling their amazing jerky while building their brand. It was exciting to see the room light up for their exclusive taste outside the ThreeSixtyEight office! Cousins Smokehouse is a one-of-a-kind jerky that will be hard to top and definitely a brand worth following.
Even though Uncle Ben’s Coffee was the newest venture featured at the social, guests were still lining up to sample their iced coffee and hear more about it’s origin. Ben Nguyen and his Uncle found a special bond through Vietnamese-style coffee, and he wanted to share that bond with other coffee lovers. Uncle Ben’s is a special blend of chicory iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk and finished with Ben’s secret blending technique.
Mercedes of Baton Rouge raffled off a weekend test-drive and Louisiana Hospitality Foundation raffled off passes to the Louisiana Seafood Festival. We also had representatives from Atmos Energy, Louisiana Technology Park, Republic Finance.
Pave the Road, Smooth the Path
Bill DiPaola, President and COO of Dat Dog, opened the night with a high-energy presentation about the importance of “the light you turn on in others.” He’s a man of many mantras: “I will not lose, ever,” “One band, one sound,” “Pave the road, smooth the path,” and each is as invigorating the next. As he told the audience from the beginning, “If what I say, and what others say, does not make you move and do something, you wasted your time, you wasted your money, thank you, good day.” We believe Bill’s words will continue to resonate with everyone and listeners will remember more than just his signature hot dogs. His strongest message is that no matter how hard you work, it doesn’t matter if you’re only working for yourself. He says, “You can never shine a light bright enough in yourself to out-pace the light that you turn on in others that reflects back on you.” This sentiment can be seen clearly in the creative, diverse, and dedicated teams running his three Dat Dog locations. He believes in elevating his team, and through their hard work and open honesty, they elevate him. Bill set the bar for the night, and most of the other speakers couldn’t resist referring to his presentation.
What is the Impact? Does the World Really Need It?
Robbie Vitrano, CEO of Good Spread and Innisfree, provided a global perspective through the production of a common food product, peanut butter. Before becoming a crusader for the third world, Robbie owned a thriving ad agency, but he examined their purpose, and asked “What is the impact? Does the world really need [these services]?” His talented advertising team transitioned their focus from expertly promoting other people’s products to promoting change. He began at home in New Orleans by trying to shift the fast food industry’s effect on the growing obesity epidemic. As this venture grew and was eventually sold, he broadened his attention to global crises. As he says, “The world doesn’t need another peanut butter; it needs people who give a shit.” His company, Good Spread, tackles malnutrition, women empowerment in third world countries, and preserving orangutan habitats, all under the umbrella of peanut butter production and sales. It’s amazing how much impact a few jars of mashed peanuts can have on so many diverse issues.
Being a Chef is Great, but not Glamorous
Before dinner, guests were treated to a cooking demonstration and interview with Ryan Andre, Corporate Chef of City Pork. With his assistant chef, Sean Rivera, Ryan twice-fried chicken wings for Korean fried chicken. While battering the wings in potato starch, Chef Ryan talks about learning to disassemble recipes just by taste, something he learned from his parents, and addresses the misconception about being a chef. Host Franz Borghardt asked if being a chef is as glamorous as TV portrays. Chef Ryan said, “It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and time away from your family.” His mentor at Commander’s Palace’s favorite food was Taco Bell, and Ryan’s is cheap fish sticks and macaroni and cheese. Ryan also takes the opportunity to talk about Gastreauxnomica, a local group for anyone in the food industry, from chefs to food writers and photographers. Finally, when asked why he wanted to be a chef, Ryan says, “I realized my passion for cooking whenever I was…working twelve-hour shifts and still coming home to enjoy cooking when I got home…. I pour my heart and soul into it.” And his passion was evident in the great dinner our guests enjoyed before the last three speakers.
Don’t be the Expert
Elana Schulman, Supervising Producer of Vice MUNCHIES, is a giddy and infectious speaker. She shares her journey from being the “weird girl” in high school to being the kick-ass weird girl who produces a show about food that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Her main message is that we should explore. Explore new mentors, explore different skills, explore new ideas. Elana says, “the weirder the skill the better.” If it weren’t for her may weird skills, she wouldn’t be able to produce such an amazing show like MUNCHIES. As she demonstrates to the audience in a couple clips from her show, food is fun, messy, and tells a story. A favorite highlight is when she hired a Barbra Streisand impersonator for a Hanukah special. Her parting advice is to never be the expert, or more specifically, always ask questions, even if you’ve asked the same question twenty times. She says, “Always have an open mind. Always ask questions. Don’t be the expert.” You’ll always get a different answer. Keep exploring.
Don’t Follow the Pack
Vanessa Lavorato, Founder of Marigold Sweets and Co-host of Vice Bong Appétit, does what no one in Louisiana is doing, yet. But even when they do, she’ll always do it better. Her high-end cannabis edibles are aesthetically beautiful and created for the sophisticated marijuana enthusiast. She didn’t follow the pack, meaning her edibles are low dose and high quality. Vanessa’s advice is to perfect your craft and decide what is important to you. She says, “I would rather spend more money and support organic farmers than have my chocolates be more economical.” Her first few attempts at cannabis chocolates led to some comical outcomes since she tested them herself. But failure is okay. We learn from our mistakes and from others’ mistakes. Finally, Vanessa believes in the value of thought leadership. “Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge, because it pushes innovation forward.” As she explains, no one else can create the product you create. The details you put into your product cannot be duplicated, but that is why it’s important to perfect your craft. Don’t Follow. Do Perfect. Share What You Know.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Michael Gulotta, Executive Chef/Partner of MoPho and Maypop, understands innovation because he’s continuously reinventing himself. After learning to cook Italian and German straight from the source while living in Italy and Germany, Gulotta worked with John Besh in New Orleans. It was challenging, he says, but every time he wanted to walk out, John Besh would pull him back in and say, “In order for you to grow, I have to push you outside of your comfort zone.” So for Michael there is no going back once he’s done something, and backing down from a challenge is not an option. That’s what led him to opening a Vietnamese inspired restaurant, MoPho. Michael says, “If you go where there is a void, if you take chances, you have to be willing to learn on your feet, and be willing to pivot.” After trying to use packaged curry he decided to “get comfortable” in the Hong Kong market on the West Bank of New Orleans, learning the difference between twenty varieties of fish sauce. He also had to combat the opposition he received from those claiming he shouldn’t be opening a Vietnamese restaurant. But he doesn’t approach the food as “fusion.” Instead, he sees it as “hyper-evolution,” asking the question: “How would a Vietnamese person cook for someone from Louisiana and vice versa? His final thought was, “Every decision can be a bad decision… It’s all about the follow-through.”
Mark Ramadan, Co-Founder and CEO of Sir Kensington’s, wrapped up the night, and his message was worth the wait. Three years after bottling their first ketchup, Mark and his business partner realized they needed a company mission. “A mission is how we and the rest of the world can understand our purpose.” Even if you have a product you care about, it doesn’t necessarily mean something to anyone else. Anyone can make ketchup, but the Sir Kensington’s mission is “To Bring Integrity & Charm to Ordinary and Overlooked Food,” which makes their product more than just ketchup. It becomes an ideal customers can be part of and support. Their mission is the basis for every decision made for the company, from the products they want to make to the kinds of people they want to work with. This mission was a major factor when Unilever showed interest in Sir Kensington’s, and was the only idea Mark and his partner cared about when selling their company to Unilever. They wanted to make sure their mission was just as important to Unilever as it was to them, otherwise, it was no deal. As Mark says, “The way you create happiness and you transform people’s lives is by having a deeper connection with them.” People buy the Sir Kensington’s mission, understanding that they are part of something unique, and Mark didn’t want to lose that. It helps that their ketchup is delicious, as well as their other products.
Assembly Required: Masters of the Story
We couldn’t be happier with our speakers and their messages. We received even more encouraging feedback for Innovators in Food. We’re not quite done meditating on the event, but we are beginning to look forward. Our next Assembly, Masters of the Story, is forthcoming in November. While you’ll have to wait for the details, we can tell you we’re planning another great experience, and are excited by the possibilities for the event. Keep checking our Facebook and website for updates.
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See you at Masters of the Story (Tickets and details coming soon!)