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Famed Chefs At Haas Dish On Food Startups

The Sustainable Food Entrepreneurship panel at UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business. Pictured from left to right are Will Rozensweig, Alice Waters and Claus Meyer. Photo by Bruce Cook

The Sustainable Food Entrepreneurship panel at U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business. Pictured from left to right are Will Rosenzweig, Alice Waters and Claus Meyer. Photo by Bruce Cook

“There’s quite a wonderful energy going on here and we’ve never had to employ bouncers before,” Robert Strand announced on Thursday (Oct. 29) in front of an overflowing Wells Fargo Room at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business. “But there are student bouncers outside these doors right now,” he continued to laughter.

Strand, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas, was introducing the Sustainable Food Entrepreneurship panel to the 50 or so “fortunate few” that found a seat or standing room. Students, faculty, and community members munched on the type of food that you’re not exactly sure what it is, but it tastes good. And more importantly, it makes you feel good, too. They listened to Haas instructor and Food Business School dean Will Rosenzweig moderate a panel of author, restaurant owner, and food activist Alice Waters and entrepreneur, professional chef, and food activist Claus Meyer.

If there was ever a Berkeley-type event, this was assuredly the Berkeley-est. Waters, who owns acclaimed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and runs the Edible Schoolyard at nearby Martin Luther King Middle School spoke about her “call” to food that came shortly after the Free Speech Movement. Meyer, a Denmark native and co-founder of multiple-time Best Restaurant in the World, Noma, talked about his French enlightenment and his mission to “change the food culture” of his Scandinavian roots.

TRENDING: BUSINESS STUDENTS’ INTEREST IN FOOD

The story could easily be about the personalities discussing everything from Waters’ involvement in a failed political campaign in the ’60s to Meyer’s humorous accounts of being “raised on a diet of margarine and frozen vegetables pre-boiled in Eastern Europe.”

But as Strand asked all the students in the room to raise their hands, and about 85% of the room raised their hands, two things became apparent. First, this reporter was suddenly self-conscious of the Clif bar in his backpack that was probably processed so many times it could withstand a Mars mission. Second, there’s a budding interest in food entrepreneurship among some of the top business students in the world.

But it’s certainly not a Berkeley-only trend. Last June, food startup Maestro won Chicago Booth’s startup competition—netting $70,000. FOCUS Foods, a sustainable rooftop-garden venture founded by a 2015 Wharton MBA grad has been setting startup competitions on fire, earning $130,000 along the way. Babson College has an “action tank for food entrepreneurs,” called Food Sol. And multiple schools including Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to Harvard Business School have food and agriculture clubs.

A INDUSTRY ON THE VERGE OF A ‘TECTONIC SHIFT?’

Still, Haas might be one of the few to dedicate a dean’s series panel to the topic and bring in two of the most influential food activists in the world. “It’s a testament to Berkeley that an event like this would take place,” Rosenzweig, who has taught at Berkeley for the past 15 years and was a senior vice president at Odwalla juice company and co-founded The Republic of Tea, said as he opened the panel discussion.

The panel comes at a time when business students are seeing opportunities in the way we source, package, and consume food. It’s an industry on the potential verge of disruption. Earlier this month, Whole Foods announced the firing of 1,500 employees, prompting co-CEO Walter Robb to pronounce a “tectonic shift” coming to the grocery industry. In an effort to stay in front of the shift, General Mills announced just last week they’ve created a VC for food startups.

The “tectonic shift” seems to be stemming from two trends, both of which were discussed during the panel. First, a growing obsession with where food comes from and how it’s consumed. Second, massive amounts of VC dough being pumped into food startups—particularly in food-delivery ventures. To be sure, both are complex business problems.