Leslie Cooper is the founder of Luca Chocolate, located in Ramseur, North Carolina. For years, she has made artisanal chocolates fresh-to-order, but never quite had the reach of, say, Godiva. That is, until a website called Foodzie came along.
Small food producers like Luca Chocolate have long been the gems of their local communities. Foodzie, launched in December 2008, is an online marketplace that provides them with a nationwide platform -- a virtual farmers market, if you will -- to peddle their peach-blackberry preserves, organic whoopie pies, and hand-harvested rock salts.
The brainchild of founders Emily Olson, Rob LaFave, and Nik Bauman, Foodzie operates on a direct-to-consumer model. Local producers can set up a storefront for free and include information about themselves and the philosophy behind their food. The producers ship directly to customers, and Foodzie takes a 20 percent commission for every sale.
"We help the food producers market themselves and get their story told," says co-founder Emily Olson. "They are really good at making their food, but when it comes to showcasing themselves, most of them don't have the time or the know-how to do that." Olson's fondness for the artisanal food community stemmed from her time working as a brand manager for a specialty food market in Greensboro, North Carolina. The experience gave Olson a greater understanding for how different food brands actually make their way to store shelves, and she noticed the process was particularly difficult for the small food producers. "That's when I realized there needed to be something more that catered to them," she says.
The realization did not stop there, thanks to her future business partners, LaFave and Bauman. The three had been fast friends since meeting freshman year at Virginia Tech. Throughout college, they had even kicked around ideas for different business ventures, but it wasn't until after graduating and hearing Olson's idea that starting a business became a reality. The idea, they thought, would work best in the online space, so they turned to TechStars, an early stage tech incubator program. In May 2008, the partners spent three months in Boulder, Colorado, working with mentors and potential investors on perfecting their prototype for Foodzie.
By October 2008, Jeff Clavier of SoftTech VC and one of the trio's mentors at TechStars, had invested $1 million to help get Foodzie off the ground. The site launched shortly thereafter, while Olson and LaFave were settling into their new home in San Francisco (they're engaged). "We saw San Francisco as the crossroads to food and technology, and we wanted to give our start-up access to the best possible resources," Olson says. The past year has been a whirlwind, they say, with more than 200 producers now selling their goods on the site, which was redesigned at the end of the summer to better promote producers and make it easier for visitors to find the products they like.
Olson has shepherded a grassroots marketing campaign -- reaching out to local San Francisco food producers, restaurants, and food magazines -- and reaping the benefits of word-of-mouth. As for targeting customers, Foodzie maintains Twitter and Facebook accounts and a company blog, as well as link exchanges with a handful of food media companies. With a growing number of people now curious about the source of the foods they eat, the company has built a following.
The Foodzie team divides responsibility based on their main strengths and interests -- Olson works closely with new producers on the site and handles marketing and community relations, LaFave has taken on the role of CEO, and Bauman works on the technology front from his home in North Carolina. (He hopes to eventually join the others in San Francisco.)
Often referred to as the Etsy of the food space, Foodzie is democratizing what has typically been a "stodgy" industry by empowering smaller food producers and promoting regional food systems, LaFave believes. "We want to create opportunities in the whole food ecosystem," he says, "and make it so that there are a large number of small producers, rather than a small number of large producers."