COVER STORY

The Bite Stuff

Five alumni startups that are disrupting the food industry.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2016
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The way we eat is changing.

Twenty years ago we counted fat grams and calories. Now, we scrutinize food labels, calibrate carbs, protein, and healthy fats, and demand ingredients that are vegan or paleo or gluten-free. 

We want to know if our food is organic, seasonal, and sustainable. 

We try to eat local, and yet our palates have never been more global.

As our tastes have evolved, so has the food business, says Vince Ponzo ’03BUS, a professor at Columbia Business School and the senior director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. Thousands of small startups are entering the market to address these new consumer demands. 

And the money is following. According to Dow Jones VentureSource, venture capitalists are investing in these businesses in record numbers. In 2015, food and beverage deals totaled $603 million, compared with just $377 million the year before. 

Alumni entrepreneurs have attracted some of that capital. Indeed, Columbia-affiliated startups were among the first to break into the food industry, with niche brands like Siggi’s Icelandic yogurt (founded in 2004 by Sigurður Hilmarsson ’04BUS) and Happy Family organic baby food (founded in 2006 by Shazi Visram ’99CC, ’04BUS).  

“The food industry was built with mass production in mind,” says Ponzo. “But that’s not what people want anymore.” And Ponzo thinks the trend is just beginning. “Pardon the pun,” he says, “but this is an industry that’s ripe for disruption.”

UNTAMED SANDWICHES

Andy Jacobi ’12BUS is a carnivore, enthusiastically and unapologetically. “I’ve eaten thousands of burgers and steaks over the course of my life,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not thoughtful about what I put in my body.”

Jacobi, the owner of Untamed Sandwiches, a New York shop that specializes in environmentally friendly slow-braised meats, started thinking seriously about his diet when he was an undergrad at Middlebury College. In addition to playing varsity tennis, he had a part-time job as a short-order cook in a local restaurant and another at an on-campus dining hall, where he helped with some of the purchasing. 

“In rural Vermont, farm-to-table isn’t a novelty; it’s the default,” he says. “Even in the early 2000s, people were getting all of their ingredients from local farm vendors. The rest of the country didn’t catch up for a while.”

After graduating, Jacobi moved to New York and started a career in finance, but the food industry was never far from his mind. He switched gears five years later and simultaneously started both a full-time MBA program at Columbia and a job as director of sales and marketing for Wild Idea, a South Dakota–based grass-fed buffalo-meat company.

“It’s an amazing family-run company with a loyal customer base willing to pay premium prices for excellent free-range products,” he says.

While working there, Jacobi became friendly with one of his clients — a New York chef named Ricky King, who had bought meat from Wild Idea for his restaurants. Over sandwiches and beers, they started brainstorming ways to make organic meats more accessible to customers.

“High-end restaurants can serve grass-fed steaks and pork chops, because they’re charging thirty or forty dollars an entrée,” he says. “But we figured out that we could use cheaper cuts, like brisket and pork shoulder, and slow-braise them to make affordable sandwiches.”

The result was Untamed Sandwiches, which opened in Midtown in 2014. The meats go through a five-day braising process — brisket cooks in port wine, pork shoulder in cider, chicken in habanero barbecue sauce — and can be assembled into sandwiches in minutes. Combined with interesting toppings like walnut-nettle pesto, fried-almond butter, pepper jelly, and crispy tobacco onions, the sandwiches are quickly becoming a lunchtime favorite for office workers and food critics alike (last year, they edged their way onto best-of lists from Thrillist, Time Out New York, and Food and Wine). 

In addition to the grass-fed meats, Untamed Sandwiches uses only organic produce and donates a portion of its profits from daily specials to charities like Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides livestock to developing communities around the world. Jacobi says that he’s glad he’s helping people feel good about their lunch. 

“It really is food with a conscience,” he says. 

KORILLA BBQ

When Eddie Song ’08CC graduated from Columbia with a degree in economics, he probably didn’t envision himself making Korean-inspired burritos in a neon-orange tiger-striped food truck on a cross-country road trip for a reality-TV show.

“Seriously, I was just going to work in finance like everyone else,” Song says.

But when he graduated, in 2008, those jobs were few and far between. Instead of Wall Street, Song headed back to Queens, with a diploma and $100,000 of debt. 

Song had grown up in an enclave of Korean immigrants, and settling back into his childhood home meant returning to a steady diet of his favorite dishes — rice bowls topped with marinated thinly sliced rib-eye called bulgogi, grilled meats marinated in gochujang (a spicy-sweet chili paste) and plenty of kimchi, the traditional cabbage pickle served at every meal.

“As an undergrad, I would take my friends out to Korean restaurants and bring things back from Queens,” Song says. “I was kind of an ambassador for Korean food.” 

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