Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Chobani Incubator’s Veteran Cohort pushes boundaries of entrepreneurial ecosystem

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Chobani, Entrepreneurship, startups

As an influential early-adopter of the incubator model that has spread throughout the CPG food and beverage industry in recent years, Chobani continues to push the boundaries of the entrepreneurial ecosystem by fine-tuning its program and recruitment process to identify and support a more diverse set of entrepreneurs than who have traditionally participated in such programs.

In this spirit, the company is dedicating its upcoming fall incubator program to three veteran-founded startups, which like all previous cohort participants will travel to Chobani’s New York City office to learn from the company’s experts in sales, marketing and innovation. But unlike previous cohorts, participants also will gain valuable insights and ongoing support from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, which partnered with Chobani to create this first-of-its-kind food incubator program.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, Chobani’s Director of New Ventures Zoe Feldman explains why supporting veterans and creating specialized cohorts is important to continue to move the food industry forward in a positive direction. We also hear from the founders of each participating company about what inspires them, what sets their products apart from the competition and how they hope to grow their businesses in the coming years.

[Editor’s note: Don’t miss another episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​ – subscribe on iTunes today​.] ​ 

The seed of inspiration

The idea for Chobani’s Veteran Cohort was planted last fall when the company launched a limited edition yogurt, patriotic yogurt designed to raise funds for and awareness of the struggles some service members face when the return home.  The tribute was so successful that the company wanted to explore how else it could support those who risk their lives to protect America and uplift the country’s values.

Feldman explains that when combing through the Sprint 2019 applicants for Chobani’s broad CPG incubator program, she noticed a substantial portion of the 600 or so applications were from military veterans who had founded CPG businesses, which she described as a “little jewel”​ and a hidden opportunity to help a specific group of entrepreneurs.

Partnering for success

While this is the first time that Chobani has partnered with an outside organization to support and scale participants in one of its incubator cohorts, Feldman said the decision to do so was “kind of a no-brainer.”

She explained that while her team at Chobani is “really good at supporting and helping scale early stage consumer food an beverage businesses,”​ they didn’t understand the unique challenges that veteran entrepreneurs might face.

IVMF will support the entrepreneurs in the cohort throughout and after the Chobani program by offering additional educational opportunities through in-class and online programming.

A new twist on the standard incubator model

Chobani also is structuring this cohort differently from past incubator programs to be more peer-led with the hope of creating lasting relationships and opportunities for mentorship.

“We’ve got 36 businesses ranging from $250,000 to $50m in sales. We’ve shepherded these businesses over the course of the past three years and it’s not just the founders now, but some folks have whole sales teams and marketing teams,”​ she said. At the same time, she added, they are peers to the three participants in the Veteran Cohort and know what is like to be where they are.

“So, a lot of this is going to be peer to peer learning and knowledge that’s sort of passed on from larger companies that have already been through the cohort, which is not something we’ve ever done before,”​ she said.

Chobani’s Veteran Cohort program also is unique because it is highly condensed into just one week at the company’s headquarters in New York rather than three to four months, but still packed with essential information for successfully scaling a business

Introducing Amore Congelato

As noted, Chobani’s inaugural Veteran Cohort includes three very diverse participants all of whom hail from the South and all of whom have placed family values as a cornerstone for their businesses.

The first of the trio to join Chobani’s Veteran Cohort is Thereasa Black, a Navel Reserve Officer and licensed attorney in Chantilly, Va., who founded her better-for-you gelato and sorbet company Amore Congelato​ this year.

As Black explains, the inspiration for her company stems from young daughter’s love of ice cream and her own desire to offer her a healthier alternative as well as build a sustainable life for the two of them together.

She explains that her daughter loves ice cream “a little bit too much,”​ and she wanted her to still enjoy a sweet treat but without the cane sugar and high fat. In response, Black created her sorbet and gelato with agave as an all natural alternative to other ice creams on the market.

In addition to using agave instead of cane sugar, Black improved the nutritional value of her sorbet by blending in vegetables as well as fruit, which she says makes them more like smoothies but without the separation that can sometimes occur.

As for applying to Chobani’s incubator, Black said she was drawn to the program because of its focus on founders, the executive leaderships’ willingness to get “into the trenches with the budding companies,”​ and their drive to make healthier food available to the masses.

She says she hopes to learn more around marketing, improve her packaging and product design and gain distribution.

Black knows this is a tall order given how crowded the ice cream and frozen dessert aisle is, but she is confident Chobani can help her given that when the founder of the company first introduced Greek yogurt “the whole refrigerator section was full of yogurt”​ but the brand still “took over. So, they already know what I’m facing and they know how to overcome it.”

J. Lee’s Gourmet BBQ Sauce

The second participant in Chobani’s Veteran Cohort is J. Lee’s Gourmet BBQ Sauce​, which was founded in 2013 by Army Veteran James Lee and his mother Helen Lee with a goal of providing a quality better-for-you product that everyone can enjoy.

Like Black, Lee uses agave to sweeten his sauces. He also skips the preservatives found in many competitors and reduced the sodium in his vegan and kosher product, but without compromising flavor – as illustrated by his sauce earning the #1 ranking in the world multiple times by the BBQ Superstars Network Pitmasters. It also was named the Super Sauce for All Occasions by Everyday Home Magazine twice.

But while Lee has secured many high-profile accolades, he says he hopes that participating in Chobani’s incubator program will help his company gain broader exposure and distribution.

Savor the Flavor brings southern charm

The last participant in the Veteran Cohort is Sumter, South Carolina-based Savor the Flavor​, which makes hand-bagged grits and rice mixes with authentic regional flavors and recipes developed by company owner Carolyn Hodge’s grandmother.

As Hodge explains, Savor the Flavor meets consumer demand for authentic dishes, bold flavors and convenience that doesn’t compromise quality.

“The things that set us apart would be the flavor. We’ve got a bunch of different unique combinations of products that you can’t purchase on the shelves”​ currently, such as “our best-seller by far [which is] our garlic cheese grits,”​ Hodge said.

She explains that her company offers consumers interested in Southern living and Southern cuisine an authentic experience that is “just so simple and so easy to make.”

While Savor the Flavor has a long, rich history as company for more than 20 years, Hodge explains it has sustained as a startup and she is now hoping to expand to become a national brand with the help of the Chobani Incubator.

Specifically, she said she hopes to “modernize everything”​ from production to packaging, which currently is all done by hand.

While Hodge acknowledges that updating and expanding the business is “like trying to eat and elephant,”​ it is important to her because she wants carry on her grandmother’s legacy and show the next generation of her family what it is to earn a living.

The future of Chobani’s Incubator program

Looking forward, Feldman says that Chobani hopes to offer additional specialized incubator cohorts while also maintaining its broader CPG cohort. But, she admits, exactly how that will play out will depend in part the success of Chobani’s inaugural Veteran Cohort program.

“Given the nature of the way the market has shifted and competition has shifted, we’ve decided to do our broader CPG cohort in the Spring, for which applications are open now through Dec. 1, and then we’d really like to do a more specialized cohort in the Fall,”​ she said. “So, it’s not a one-off, but I think we need to get through this December and see the success and see where there are things we need to do in order to improve.”

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