Chicago has long been known for its deep-dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and a handful of other culinary concoctions. Food culture in the Windy City has branched out far beyond those staples, of course--and for many entrepreneurs, it's becoming big business.

From better coffee for caffeine-deprived students to healthy vending machine options, Chicago is now a hotbed for burgeoning food companies. It helps that the city's broader startup scene has been heating up in recent years, comprising a diverse range of industries and a marked increase in funding. On May 21, Chicago will play host to Inc.'s Fast Growth Tour, a conference featuring keynotes, one-on-one coaching sessions, and networking opportunities with accomplished business leaders.

The event also will include a panel discussion with RxBar co-founder Peter Rahal and Simple Mills founder Katlin Smith, two Chicago entrepreneurs who have led food businesses to massive success. Here are four startups that appear poised to follow in their footsteps.

1. Farmer's Fridge

Tired of snacking on potato chips and candy bars from vending machines? Farmer's Fridge is trying to change that by refurbishing old machines and filling them with healthy options like salads, sandwiches, and trail mix. The items cost between $5 and $8 and are stocked daily to ensure freshness. The company now has more than 250 machines in Chicago and Milwaukee, in hospitals, airports, and retail locations like convenience stores and pharmacies. CEO Luke Saunders tells Inc. it plans to expand elsewhere in the Midwest, with at least 500 additional installations by the end of the year. 

Saunders founded Farmer's Fridge in 2013. In September, the company raised $30 million in a Series C round led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt's venture capital fund Innovation Endeavors, bringing its total funding to $42 million, according to Crunchbase. Farmer's Fridge also recently announced it was moving into a 50,000-square-foot production facility on Chicago's South Side.

2. BrewBike

Lucas Philips was a freshman at Northwestern in 2015 and frustrated by the limited coffee options available: He either could drink the terrible brew served at the school's cafeteria or wait in painfully long lines at Starbucks. To remedy the problem, he launched BrewBike, a student-run coffee company that began operations as a small cart attached to a bike. Now the company has two retail locations in Chicago and bike stands at Northwestern and the University of Texas at Austin. 

In September, BrewBike raised an $800,000 seed round to expand operations. Key investors include Chicagoans Mats Lederhausen, founder of the investing platform BE-CAUSE, and Matt Matros, the founder of caffeinated sparkling water company Limitless Coffee. 

3. Vital Proteins

Kurt Seidensticker's résumé includes training NASA astronauts to operate space shuttles, working at Motorola, and launching a Millennial beauty brand. He's also the founder of Vital Proteins, a company that sells dietary supplements and drinks containing collagen, the main structural protein in hair, skin, and bones. The products--including collagen-infused water, bone broth collagen powder, and collagen creamers--have gained popularity since the company's 2014 launch for their promise to plump skin, grow hair, and cure aches and pains.

Seidensticker, an avid runner, got the idea for the company when he learned that after the age of 25 the human body stops producing collagen, which can lead to the type of knee pain he was experiencing. After originally self-funding the startup, he received $19 million from private-equity firm Cavu Venture Partners in November 2017.

Today, Vital Proteins is in more than 10,000 stores across the country, including Whole Foods and Target, according to Crain's Chicago Business. While popular dietary trends helped fueled its growth, the company got an added boost this month from an announced partnership with Kourtney Kardashian's lifestyle and e-commerce site, Poosh. 

4. Fooda

Fooda has identified the key to surviving the workday: lunch. The company works with restaurants to bring pop-up sites to office buildings, and runs in-office restaurants that replace corporate cafeterias. The goal is to give workers more culinary options and reduce the amount of time they waste searching for a snack.

The startup was founded by Orazio Buzza, the former president and COO of Echo Global Logistics, a supply-chain management company. It has raised $34.2 million in funding, including a $12.5 million Series C in September 2017, according to Crunchbase. Since its 2011 launch, it has expanded to 22 cities across the U.S., including a spot in JFK Airport's just-opened TWA Hotel. Fooda is operating the food hall there, which includes New York City favorites like Empanada Mama and the Halal Guys.

Published on: May 22, 2019