July 25, 2016

‘I feel like I was ripped off!’ The Fresh Diet closes without alerting employees, clients

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The Fresh Diet founder Zalmi Duchman in 2010. Joe Rimkus Jr. Miami Herald file photo

By Chabeli Herrera / cherrera@miamiherald.com

In an abrupt decision, Miami-based The Fresh Diet, a gourmet food delivery service, closed shop Friday without informing most employees and clients, many of whom paid for the service months in advance.

The national company had been sold back to founder and Miami food entrepreneur Zalmi Duchman in March. He tried to turn the business around, but it was too late, said Daniel Gielchinsky, Duchman’s general consul.

Previous owner Innovative Food Holdings had driven the company to financial ruin, Gielchinsky said, taking on too many employees and attempting to grow too quickly without a set expansion plan.

“Mr. Duchman attempted to implement an ambitious turn-around plan but was unable to do so because of certain obstacles and ultimately was forced to close the company because of the manner in which it was hemorrhaging cash,” Gielchinsky said.

The company is now filing for the Florida-equivalent of a bankruptcy, known as an assignment for benefit of creditors.

A temporary manager was in charge of informing employees and clients of the closure but “the manager may not have followed through on all of the notices that were intended to be given,” Gielchinsky said.

“We are looking into that,” he added.

Gielchinsky declined to say how many people The Fresh Diet employed, but said the number is below the threshold for a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice of a business closure. Under a WARN notice, businesses must give notice if an employment site is being shut down resulting in displacement for 50 or more employees — excluding those who have worked six months or less in the last year and those who work less than 20 hours a week — during a 30-day time period.

Kelisha Able, who worked helping clients with special food needs, said she and her husband, who is a driver for the company, were informed of the closure Thursday night through a manager. The parents of three elementary-school age children are both without jobs now, Able said.

“Right now, I am going crazy,” Able said. “We don’t know how we are going to pay our rent, we don’t know how we are going to start for our kids to go back to school, all the bills that we have. Our job is paycheck to paycheck, it’s not like we have a lot in savings.”

Able, who worked for the company for five years and seven months, said she only had one clue that the business was in trouble: when plans were being discounted from $34.99 to $19.99 a day. At The Fresh Diet, clients pay a daily fee to have breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks delivered to their doorstep every morning.

Right now, I am going crazy. We don’t know how we are going to pay out rent, we don’t know how we are going to start for our kids to go back to school, all the bills that we have. Kelisha Able, The Fresh Diet employee

Able said she finally got her two-week paycheck, due to her Friday, on Monday morning — but it was only for one week.

“We are trying to figure it out,” Able said. “I’ve applied for unemployment but that’s it, we don’t know what we are going to do.”

Several clients only realized the business closed when they stopped receiving their morning meals.

Longtime New Jersey client Hayley Stein said she and her fiancé paid nearly $11,000 in two meal plans purchased on a Black Friday deal in 2015. Stein has been using The Fresh Diet since 2011 and has been “thrilled” with the program and its customer service.

But on Saturday morning, for the first time since she’s ordered her meals, the food did not arrive.

“I feel like I was ripped off,” Stein said.

She said she has paid the full cost of the plans and still has more than 200 days remaining. Most surprising, Stein said, is that on July 1 she received an email from the business with a subject line, “Introducing our new custom plan,” with information on a customizable diet plan. The email was signed by Duchman.

It didn’t seem like a company on the edge of ruin, Stein said.

Gielchinsky said the company is also “looking into” refunds for customers who already paid for meals.

Since the abrupt closure, clients have posted on Twitter and Yelp about money owed to them. Andrew Buck, director of infrastructure at the local Fresh Diet office, said Duchman texted him over the weekend asking him to delete The Fresh Diet’s Twitter, Facebook and some Yelp accounts. The website remains active but calls to a posted number go unanswered.

“Hey Zalmi, I hear that Fresh Diet has closed, and I paid a lot of food in advance. You owe me $2000! How are you going to fix this?” tweeted user @izrak2.

July 13, 2016

Lemon City Tea Company: A new twist on tea now brewing

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Lauren Fernandez, Natalie Napolean de Bens and Gail Hamilton, founders of Lemon City Tea Company

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

The four women behind Lemon City Tea Company — Lauren Fernandez, Gail Hamilton, Natalia Napolean de Bens and Melissa Chamorro — believe tea can have attitude.

“Zen, no, that is not our tea; we want our tea to be full of life,” said Hamilton. “Our teas have personality and are experiential, designed to facilitate and enhance our customers’ everyday moments,” she added.

The name derives from the historic northeast Miami neighborhood of Lemon City, also known as Little Haiti, where the partners were enjoying after-work drinks and first came up with the concept.

And like many of the local food entrepreneurs, Lemon City strives to offer a high-quality, ethically sourced product. The company sources its tea leaves and tisanes from all over the world and combines these with tropical botanicals, natural herbs, fruits and essential oils.

“Our teas are inspired by the crazy, complex, diverse and exciting city we call home — Miami,” Hamilton said. “Lemon City develops and curates its Miami-inspired teas with Latin American, Caribbean and South Floridian flavors in mind. From a complex summery mate, to a mango-enhanced black iced tea and our soon-to-be-released signature Cafeci-té, our products proudly showcase this city’s robust culture, vibe and energy.”

Launched in 2014, Lemon City is self-funded. With just the team of four so far, Lemon City has built a wholesale book of business of 35 mainly local stores, salons and restaurants, including The Daily Creative, its first customer, Ms. Cheezious, Delia's, Rik Rak, Sakaya, Izzy’s Fish and Oyster Bar, Spillover, Lokal and O Cinema, said Napolean de Bens, a lawyer. The company also began shipping to two Philadephia restaurants.

The company, with about 30 blends that are certified organic, also has an online business (lemoncitytea.com also provides a playlist for tea time nontratraditionalists) and this year has shifted its focus to driving retail sales, including the launch of retail boxes, said Naolean de Bens. The company has finalized the design and size of its retail box.

“Our retail box is designed to delight both our current customers as well as introduce new customers to our brand,” said Hamilton, who owns a branding company and formerly worked at Bacardi. “It will offer a mixed selection of four of our most popular teas. We believe starting with a mixed box not only hits on what our current customers already enjoy but also gives a variety of options to try for someone that is new to our brand.”

The women, all friends, have day jobs (two attorneys, a branding consultant and an art director), but don’t call this a hobby business. For these passionate women it’s a full-time venture that they work on not from 9 to 5 but “from 5 til God knows what time — we don’t sleep much,” said Napolean de Bens. She and Hamilton worked in Asia for a time, honing their understanding and appreciation of tea. But the beverage has always been a part of the culture for the four, who are collectively of Jamaican, Haitian, Cuban and Nicaraguan decent.

Said Napolean de Bens: “We all grew up with tea — for any occasion or whatever ails you, there’s a tea.”

July 12, 2016

Half Moon Empanadas: Passion, perseverance powers company through tough start

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Half Moon Empanadas founders Juan and Pilar Guzman Zavala

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Juan Zavala and Pilar Guzman Zavala knew relatively little about the food industry when the couple went all in with their savings, their proceeds from a home sale and a lot of borrowed money.

Their concept: Half Moon Empanadas. Inspired by Argentina’s empanada culture and Latin American flavors, the food service company launched its first location in August of 2008, in Miami Beach. As its name suggests, Half Moon specializes in making and selling empanadas that are made from scratch, by hand and with the best ingredients, Pilar said. “We are empanada makers who are obsessed with product quality and superior service.”

Juan, born in Argentina, left his family-owned publishing company, and Pilar, who grew up in Mexico, left her full-time position at the Knight Foundation to pursue their dream. “Initially, we failed miserably, or should we say momentarily,” said" said Pilar, talking about their original 2,000-square-foot location in the heart of South Beach that was a financial mistake.

For a while it didn’t look like their business would make it. But the tough times forced the couple to get creative.

The couple worked several festivals like the South Beach Art Deco Festival and the Coconut Grove Art Festival, and realized they sold more in two days than what they could sell in a week at their SoBe location. A kiosk at University of Miami also did very well, producing 10-times the results of a former, more traditional vendor . Light-bulb moment: Much smaller, convenient, high-traffic, grab-and-go locations are key. “We learned from trial and error and listened to what the market told us,” Juan said. That led them to get out of their expensive SoBe lease and pursue all the locations they still have today at the University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami International Airport.

The airport location was a huge win. “We competed against six other local and national concepts. It took us "four years to open this location, from the moment we submitted the bid to the moment we opened the doors,” Pilar said. “We are among the few small businesses in the entire airport.”

The next huge hurdle was financing. Bank after bank after bank rejected them, even with contracts in hand. Then Pilar emailed their mentor and friend, Juan Martinez, CFO at the Knight Foundation, who referred them to TotalBank Chairman Jorge Rossell, who granted a personal meeting. “He believed in our potential, he believed in us,” said Pilar, who considers him a mentor and meets with him quarterly.

Since opening its first location in late 2008, Half Moon has built a new commissary while expanding aggressively into nontraditional and high-traffic venues and locations, including its commissary retail location and small café at 860 NE 79th St. in Miami, where the team is experimenting with specialty flavors and “build your own empanadas.” It also sells at three University of Miami kiosks, Miami International Airport (Gate D29), Florida International University and Sawgrass Mills mall.

In the past year, Half Moon Empanadas (halfmoonempanadas.com) has nearly tripled its revenue, has grown to 40 employees, and currently sells more than 40,000 empanadas a month. The 190-square-foot airport location, its top seller by far, is one of MIA’s five top-selling top five selling "food concessions per square foot, Juan said.

In time, Half Moon’s founders plan to expand nationally and globally, perhaps via a franchise model. Much like the international chain Auntie Anne’s did for pretzels, Half Moon Empanadas aims to lead the empanadas category well into the future, having survived a bumpy start, Pilar said.

“Quite frankly, we dusted ourselves off, we tightened our belts, and we survived, never abandoning our bigger dream of one day creating a new food category.”

Filthy Food: Raising the bar on cocktail garnishes

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Ralph and Daniel Singer, co-founders of Filthy Food

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Can an actor formerly with the Royal Shakespeare Company run a food company?

“I’ve read Glengarry Glen Ross enough times. What else do you need to know? Always be closing.”

Or so Daniel Singer thought.

The British actor moved to Miami from London with a young family and wanted to start a business. He took the reins of a Miramar pickle company in 2004 and then in 2005 joined on to help run a meat company owned by his father. Singer had some success with expansion, but the passion just wasn’t there.

That is, until he had the idea to create a specialized company that focused on the cocktail niche.

The family sold National Deli (which had purchased the pickle company) and his father, Ralph Singer, a serial entrepreneur on both sides of the pond in textiles, child care, real estate and food companies, quickly signed on as a co-founder with the new venture. “It’s a gem of an idea that just needed a little polish,” Ralph said.

The idea for Filthy Food, a company with a line of cocktail pickles, olives, onions and cherries, was germinating as the current craft cocktail movement began to pick up steam. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, it wasn’t difficult for Daniel to talk his documentary filmmaker brother, Marc Singer, into joining the company. “If you are an entrepreneur, it’s in you,” Daniel said. Together, they embarked on a two-year pilgrimage of olives in the name of research.

Did you know there are more than 200 varieties of cultivatable olives?

The proper olive is important, but the fermentation process is key — the ones on the market reeked of salt and oil, Daniel said. (Ever notice the little pool of oil on the top of your martini?) Filthy Food developed a proprietary fermentation process, and with samples in the back of their car, the brothers drove around New York pitching Filthy.

The big challenge: “To get people to care about something they didn’t think they needed to care about,” Daniel said. Bar olives and the like were thought of as commodities; Filthy is essentially creating a new category, he said.

In March 2010, they launched the Filthy Pickle, a cocktail pickle-olive garnish, at a trade show in Las Vegas. Let’s let the website for Filthy, “the world’s sexiest drink garnish,” describe it: “A beautiful, fleshy, seductive olive is the perfect place to put a firm, Filthy little pickle.” There are also descriptions for varieties of olives, cherries and onions. The big goal, Daniel said, is to become the most recognizable cocktail garnish company in the world. The W hotel on South Beach was the company’s first South Florida customers.

Although Filthy Food has always been headquartered here, the company last year consolidated its manufacturing from Chicago and New York to a 40,000-square-foot factory and headquarters in Miami Gardens refurbished to meet Filthy’s high production standard, said Daniel.

Today the company is 30 people strong, and Filthy’s products are shipped to all 50 states through liquor distributors and are served in cocktails in local places such as the Melting Pot, Yardbird, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Soho House, Juvia, Broken Shaker and Sweet Liberty as well as Total Wine & More, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, and on filthyfood.com. It’s on Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise ships, too. “If they care about quality, Filthy is behind the bar,” Singer said in his best “Glengarry Glen Ross” mode.

Daniel handles branding and business development, while Marc, whose 2000 documentary “Dark Days” won awards at Sundance, runs operations. “I never regretted even for one day my massive career change,” Marc said. Their father, Ralph, a managing member for the company, describes himself as the rudder that keeps them on course. Also involved as an investor and full partner is actor and friend Josh Lucas, who has starred in movies such as “American Psycho,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and “A Beautiful Mind.” Said Daniel: “There’s the Josh that everybody sees on TV or in movies and there is the Josh that will be in New York with Marc getting boxes out the door.” Lucas has also helped with connections, such as getting Filthy on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

Best-sellers in liquor stores are the blue-cheese-stuffed olives, Daniel said. In bars and restaurants, because of the resurgence of American whiskey, black cherries are most popular (Daniel prefers them in the Classic Manhattan). Try Filthy Peppers with tequila or in a Bloody Mary.

And the original pickle? “The brand is unexpected and joyful, and the Filthy Pickle embodies that,” Daniel said. “It’s a real surprise in martinis or Bloody Marys.”

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

July 11, 2016

How millennial tastes shape a new generation of food startups

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Cold Pressed Raw founder Tatiana Peisach

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

The craft movement has moved beyond beer. Today’s new food and beverage products are likely to be handmade, creative and adventuresome.

The eats and drinks are local, fresh and healthy too — often organic. And it doesn’t hurt to be a friend of the planet.

The front door is the new drive-through. Food arrives at the home or office with tech-enabled efficiency powering all aspects of the food supply chain.

According to entrepreneurship nonprofit Endeavor, South Florida is ripe for food-and-beverage startups building on these national trends because the critical ingredients are already here: a strong food service sector, culinary culture and an appreciation for green eating.

That last element is key to the nation’s $5.7 billion food-startup investment scene, which is driven by millennials, now the largest U.S. generation.

Millennials’ preference for healthier, “real food” married with convenience is the recipe for success, a 2015 Goldman Sachs report found. They are more likely than any other age group to buy all-natural and organic products, for instance, and are 45 percent more likely to buy these types of products than others. Millennials also are more likely than Boomers or GenXers to favor ethnic and artisanal food and beverage products — for indulgences, gourmet doughnuts are the new cupcakes.

“We expect millennials to account for more than 75 percent of growth within the food vertical over the next decade,” the Goldman analysts said. And while the world’s biggest food brands are beginning to embrace the trends, it is the small nimble companies that are most likely to drive innovation, the report said.

South Florida has plenty of those. Wynwood-born Panther Coffee is opening up cafes around South Florida and sells its artisan coffee worldwide. Tio Foods, maker of organic gazpacho-style soups in bottles, recently attracted General Mills as an investor. Homegrown meal delivery companies have proliferated, with the likes of DeliverLean, Fit2Go, The Fresh Diet and Fresh Meal Plan delivering health- and calorie-conscious meals to homes and businesses, making eating better as easy as ordering up an Uber.

Also sprouting up is an entire vertical of alcohol-related startups, including craft brewers and spirits makers, distributors and consumer apps — such as SpeedETab, Klink, Drizly and Minibar — that make it easier to order or bring the party to you.

As for comestible products, the common denominator, once again: artisan and adventurous. The family-run Filthy Food seeks to raise the bar on cocktail garnishes, creating a new craft category. “It’s the details that make a great drink experience, and bars that care about those details serve Filthy,” said Daniel Singer, one of the co-founders. (See related story.)

Continue reading "How millennial tastes shape a new generation of food startups" »

June 27, 2016

Startup Spotlight: Shanti Bar founders passionate about health, attract Hope Solo

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Shanti Bar, a line of energy and protein bars sold in more than 150 venues, is created, manufactured and distributed by a Miami-based startup. The Olympic champ and soccer star Hope Solo recently endorsed Shanti Bar as her performance bar of choice.


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/#storylink=cpy

Company name: Organically Raw (produces Shanti Bar line of products)

Headquarters: Miami

Business: Organically Raw is aiming to disrupt the functional food bar category by introducing superfoods to the masses, and to be the leader in the high-performance, high-protein, nutrient-dense, raw superfood space. “We want to create a revolution whereby sports and active performance nutrition is fueled by natural sources and superfoods,” CEO Lauren Feingold said. The company’s first product line is Shanti Bar. To the co-founders, Shanti Bar celebrates the raw power of female excellence and beauty and supports sexual equality.

Story: Feingold and Ashanty Williams (pictured above), who both studied culinary arts and have a passion for health and wellness, met at a local gym in Miami in 2012 and became friends. Williams asked Feingold to try a Shanti Bar she developed. “Once I did, I was hooked and the two of us formed a partnership based on a mutual dynamic skill set of the culinary arts, business management and ambition to see the endeavor through.”

Most all products in the market contained loads of unnecessary ingredients and lacked nutritional and functional health benefits, Feingold said. “We believe the consumer deserves more and should have a product they can rely on whether it is at the gym, work, traveling, or on the go.”

Shanti Bar is manufactured, produced and distributed from its facilities in Miami, and this summer, Organically Raw is set to launch Shanti Bar into mainstream retailers. While the market is crowded with competitors, this 100 percent raw, vegan and organic product has a secret weapon: Olympic champion Hope Solo.

Hope Solo (4)

Solo said “the brand represents the idea of what a powerful and purposeful woman is” and last month endorsed the Shanti Bar as her “performance bar of choice.”

“Female entrepreneurs are a very strong and vibrant community, and they want to help each other,” said Solo, who was already a fan and regular customer of Shanti Bar. “I’m excited to work with Lauren and Ashanty — they’re incredible women who want to chart their own path and have found something they love and believe in.”

The energy and protein bars are sold in nearly 150 locations in South Florida, including Tunies Natural Market, Beehive, One Hotel, The Standard, Soho House, Native Sun Grocers, Juice n Java and Miami Cafe, and are now distributed nationally in New York, Colorado, California, Georgia, Oregon and Nevada.

Company launched: March 2015

Management team: Lauren Feingold, CEO; Ashanty Williams, COO; Zussy Williams, facility manager.

Employees: 31

Website: shanti.bar

Financing: Mainly self-financed. Obtained a few equipment loans.

Milestones: Partnership with Hope Solo, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and FIFA World Cup Champion goalie, was announced in May. Also this year, the company further automated its production in order to manufacture mass quantities and launched a new flavor, Acai Lush, in its Shanti Bar Mini line.

Biggest startup challenge: “There isn’t anything easy about it,” Feingold said. “But probably the biggest challenge has been penetrating the natural channel’s mainstream retailers and mass market key accounts.”

Next steps: The company is working with a broker to help take Shanti Bar nationwide. It also plans to participate in various trade shows outside of its natural channel — for example, Shanti Bar could be marketed for hiking, biking, camping, skiing, etc.

“Ashanty and I are dedicated and determined to make a positive impact in the world of health and wellness nutrition and sports and active performance nutrition,” Feingold said.

Nancy Dahlberg @ndahlberg

[Read more Startup Spotlights here and here and see more small business coverage here.]

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June 21, 2016

A case study for helping companies grow: Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses

Locally, 10,000 Small Businesses at Miami Dade College has helped 230 companies grow their businesses, adding revenue and jobs. Revenues have more than doubled for Miami entrepreneur Enrique Torres’ business, Excellent Fruit & Produce. Still, challenges remain for small businesses, as a new study by Babson College shows.

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Enrique Torres, owner of Excellent Fruit & Produce in Miami.

 

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Nearly 62 percent of small businesses in America have four or fewer employees, and we know in South Florida that number tops 90 percent.

Helping small businesses scale offers enormous, and largely untapped potential in creating new jobs and generating economic development, according to a new report titled “The State of Small Business in America” by Babson College.

“We all benefit if we are able to foster a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that best supports ongoing small business growth and job creation in America,” said Babson College President Kerry Healey. “Public and private sectors must work together to support small businesses, which comprise 99 percent of all U.S. employer firms and which account for more than half of the private sector’s net new jobs over the past two decades.”

More than 1,800 businesses across the United States were surveyed for the report. Most of them were participants in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, a national program available in South Florida that helps existing small businesses grow. Key findings included:

Obtaining capital remains a big hurdle. Small businesses are four times more likely to go to a bank for capital needs. Looking across all sources of capital, survey respondents apply for a median amount of $100,000, but receive only 40 percent of what they seek. Businesses say they need more flexible loan terms.

Business owners find regulation both difficult and time-consuming. On average, four hours per week is spent dealing with government regulations and tax compliance, which totals over 200 hours per year.

The skills gap is overwhelmingly a small business owner’s No. 1 issue with respect to hiring. Over 70 percent of respondents find it difficult to hire qualified employees because they say potential candidates lack the requisite skill sets — over and above competition for talent, salary requirements, and the provision of benefits.

This new report comes out on the heels of the Kauffman Foundation’s Index of Growth Entrepreneurship ranking the Miami area as second to last among metro areas for scale-up businesses. Yet the 10,000 Small Businesses Program, among other programs, is directly addressing the very issue of helping existing small businesses to scale, including assistance with capital raising, navigating government regulations, and team building.

And it’s working.

Nationally, over about six years, 10KSB with program locations in 22 states has now served more than 6,100 businesses, representing more than $5 billion in total revenues and more than 80,000 employees. Nationally, more than 60 percent of program alumni have added jobs 30 months after graduating with average job growth at the rate of 114 percent, and 82 percent of program alumni have increased revenues by an average rate of 106 percent within 30 months.

John Hall, executive director of the 10,000 Small Businesses at Miami Dade College program, said the growth trends of local 10KSB graduates have been consistent with the national averages. The local, free 16-week 10KSB program, which uses Babson’s curriculum and supplements the education with individual mentorship and a sharp focus on growth strategy, kicked off its first cohort in early 2014.

Enrique Torres, who owns Excellent Fruit & Produce in Miami, was part of Cohort No. 1. Since graduating in May 2014, he said his company, a fresh produce distributor to restaurants, hotels and hospitals in the region, has more than doubled revenues and employees. Through the program’s workshops, “I discovered the identity of my company,” he said, and that resulted in a complete re-branding, from new trucks to the design of the produce boxes.

Torres said he learned how to hire smarter, professionalize procedures, add technology to make the company more efficient and, in essence, “using all the tools to attain your goals.” Networking with fellow entrepreneurs who are outside his industry was also very valuable, he said. The homegrown company that he has owned since 2005 now has 16 full-time employees.

Locally, 39 companies are enrolled in Cohort 8, the largest class yet for the business education program that launched at Miami Dade College in September 2013 with $5 million in funding from Goldman Sachs.

“The local program has served a total of 230 businesses to date, representing more than 3,900 jobs throughout Greater Miami and more than $340 million in aggregate revenues,” Hall said.

The 10KSB program at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus runs several cohorts every year. Applicants should own or co-own a business in operation for at least two years, with at least $150,000 in revenues in the most recent fiscal year. To apply, visit http://www.10KSBapply.com or call or call 305-237-7824.

Babson College is also involved locally in launching the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab, a new Miami accelerator program that aims to help female entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. Find out more about WINLab here.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. Read more small business coverage here.

June 06, 2016

Multi-campus StartUP FIU gets ready for takeoff

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Emily Gresham and Robert Hacker, shown at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, are spearheading the StartUP FIU program. It will include three hubs, with programs for food businesses, tech and social entrepreneurship, and will be open to the community as well as to students. Alexia Fodere For The Miami Herald

Below: One of the events held for students as part of StartUP FIU. Photo by Daniela Ferrato.

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By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Cheng photoIn the culinary kitchens of Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Michael Cheng smelled opportunity. The commercial facilities were only being used about half time; as the director of the food-and-beverage program, Cheng thought FIU should offer the excess capacity to companies for a fee.

But after a discussion with Emily Gresham, who is spearheading a university-wide StartUP FIU program, and its student leader Valeria Siegrist, Cheng’s mindset changed. “They opened my eyes... They told me ‘there is an entire community of food entrepreneurs out there who would die to have this space but they can’t afford it.’ and I said ‘Well, let’s open that up to them.’ That’s how Food FIU got started.”

Beginning this fall, the Food FIU program will help entrepreneurs from low- and moderate-income communities in three stages of development – those at the idea stage, entrepreneurs selling in farmers’ markets but are ready to move to the next level, and later stage companies that want to scale. Cheng (pictured at right), who is also an associate processor, said StartUP FIU will start working with firms from North Miami, where the Biscayne Bay Campus is located, with a potential Homestead outpost at a later time. The program is free, and the entrepreneurs do not have to be affiliated with FIU in any way.

The Food innovation hub, supported in part by a $500,000 grant from Citi Foundation, will be one leg of a larger effort called StartUP FIU launching this fall. The interdisciplinary multi-campus resource for students, faculty, staff, alumni and entrepreneurs in the community will include physical spaces, programs and events for entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-wannabes to meet, collaborate, be mentored and take training. An accelerator will work with teams on commercializing concepts.

“Our economy increasingly offers opportunities to people who are able to make good jobs rather than take good jobs. We see this transformation as emblematic of what we have to do at FIU,” said FIU President Mark Rosenberg. “FIU is a huge cluster of talent ... What we are trying to do is provide platforms for that talent to come together around the capabilities that we have. ... We want to provide a safe haven for that talent to come together, with some supervision, to develop products, ideas and opportunities.”

Initially, StartUP FIU, will take root in three locations: the Modesto Maidique campus in Sweetwater, the Hospitality School at the Biscayne Bay campus, and a facility near Tamiami airport serving the growing cadre of technology and medical businesses there. The program has been appropriated $1.25 million from the state in addition to the Citi Foundation funding. It is run by Gresham, FIU’s assistant vice president for Research – Innovation and Economic Development, and Robert Hacker, StartUP FIU’s director.

The program joins existing FIU entrepreneurship resources including the Small Business Development Center, a new Tech Station, the Miami Fintech Forum and the Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center, most located on the Maidique campus on Tamiami Trail. FIU is also a designated “changemaker campus” for Ashoka, the global network for social entrepreneurship.

Despite those existing resources, students had no one-stop-shop for connecting with resources, concluded StartUP FIU’s team after conducting more than 100 interviews with students, faculty and community leaders. Often, students didn’t know where to go, nor were they connecting with the larger community.

“Our students are our energy, our talent, and the diversity of our students, faculty, alumni and the community improves collaboration,” said Gresham. “We’ve decided to have a more inclusive StartUP FIU, which means everyone’s welcome.”

Regionwide, students have more resources than just a few years ago. The Idea Center at MDC opened 18 months ago with an accelerator for MDC students, startup contests, events and a coding school. The University of Miami has been expanding its commercialization efforts, particularly in the healthcare area, working closely with dozens of startups. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton opened Tech Runway, an accelerator that also offers funding and mentorship for student and community teams. Broward College opened its incubator last month.

These join a region-wide effort, fueled by the Knight Foundation, to accelerate entrepreneurship by expanding resources for mentorship, talent-building and funding. Entrepreneurial co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators have been proliferating, but most are in Miami’s urban core.

That’s the void in the ecosystem StartUP FIU hopes to help fill by focusing on Miami-Dade’s lower income communities and far west suburbs. “There’s a lot of activity, but we are still looking for depth, right?,” said Gresham. “We think we have something to offer in terms of depth building.”

Social entrepreneurship will be a key facet of the program, said Hacker. He expects ongoing themes to include sustainable cities, sea level rise, food supply, medical technology and education technology. An international businessman, Hacker has been teaching entrepreneurship and socially concsious business for more than a decade at FIU’s Honors College and Engineering School and MIT’s Sloan School.

“Miami enjoys the distinction of being the only city in the world that has two Ashoka Changemaker campuses – FIU and MDC. I think that both universities are fomenting all kinds of social entrepreneurs looking for support. We are interested and committed to putting incubators in communities that have not been served by incubators, and I think that will also naturally produce social entrepreneurs,” said Hacker.

As a startup itself, StartUP FIU has been developing over the past year, gaining grassroots support. StartUP FIU student directors Siegrist and Alessia Tacchella took Hacker’s course on Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking. That got the entrepreneurial juices flowing. But instead of working on their own startups, they jumped on the opportunity to help develop StartUP FIU. Tacchella, a finance/economics major who recently graduated, took the lead.

They gathered a diverse group of students with marketing, finance and technical expertise and began meeting weekly to plan the launch and test concepts, she said. About 80 to 100 students have been turning out for events. “When you tell them you want to help them to make their idea become a company, they are thrilled about it. They can’t believe all the resources we are bringing in on campus,” said Siegrist, a communications student.

Wifredo Fernandez, who co-founded The LAB Miami and was one of the founders of MDC’s’ Idea Center, offered insights on best practices and valuable connections, said Gresham. He now works with Gresham in the Innovation and Economic Development department and is StartUP FIU’s associate director.

Applications are being accepted at startup.fiu.edu for the accelerator’s first class. The free 13-week program will begin Sept. 6, will include weekly programs, mentorship and regular milestones for teams to meet, and end with a traditional demo day in which teams pitch to investors. The new StartUP FIU hub at the Maidique campus, a-10,000-square-foot space in the Marc building, should be ready by January; the program will operate in temporary space until then. Programs at the Biscayne Bay campus and near the Tamiami Airport will also get underway in the fall. The services are free.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Rosenberg. “We’re pumped, we’re ready to go.”

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

 

 

 

 

May 26, 2016

It’s all about efficiency: A conversation with SpeedETab’s cofounders

By Rhiya Mittal / RhiyaMittal@gmail.com

PicturePicture this. It’s already 6:50 pm and you just arrived to the Wynwood Art District to attend Startup Grind Miami’s monthly Fireside Chat. Only 10 minutes remain until the chat begins but you need to get your medium latte from Panther Coffee after your grueling day at work. For the average person, this may seem like quite the dilemma. But not for you! You’ve already ordered and paid for your coffee ahead of time through your SpeedETab app on your smartphone. You quickly run into Panther Coffee, snigger at the long line of eager coffee drinkers, spot an inviting to-go cup with your name on it on SpeedETab’s signature black and green mat, scoop it up, and leave the store- all in a span of two minutes. You then head on over to LAB Miami, Wynwood’s hub for entrepreneurs and innovators (and the venue for the night’s Startup Grind event), and make it just in time for the Fireside Chat, caffeinated and ready to go! You whip out your laptop and get ready to take notes on tonight’s conversation with SpeedETab cofounders, Adam Garfield and Ed Gilmore, to see how they made the magic happen.

(Side note- the above anecdote is a true story based on my personal experience/)

So, what is SpeedETab? After working long hours at a corporate finance firm in Boston, Adam Garfield would often go out with his friends to grab a beer at a local bar. It was then that he noticed a recurring problem that did not yet seem to have a solution: he would often be standing at the bar after ordering his drink, with his cash in hand, for upwards of 10 minutes, waiting for a bartender to process his order and deliver his beverage. Something had to be done. Adam and cofounder Ed Gilmore decided to take matters into their own hands and create SpeedETab, a mobile ordering app that allows users to discover nearby restaurants, order food and drinks, and pay for their order- all in one go. To retrieve their orders, users simply skip the line at their favorite venues, walk up to the SpeedETab mat by the cashiers, and pick up their items. It’s that easy! Launched in March 2015, SpeedETab has taken the South Florida region by storm and is used at over 100 venues, with plans to expand to New York soon.

NewstartupgrindProduct is king. Focus is key. In the tech environment, there are countless ways to improve a product and add new, shiny features that may seem revolutionary. However, constant feature upgrades and additions may prove to actually detract from the product itself and could be economically impractical. So how does one choose which features stay and which ones go? Adam and Ed believe that in order to be successful, a team’s main focus must be guaranteeing that its main product works efficiently and successfully while consistently delivering and achieving its ultimate goal. SpeedETab’s team focuses primarily on the ultimate user experience, for both its merchants and its clients. Before updating the app in any way, Adam and Ed ensure that the user experience will remain streamlined and reliable, as their goal is to create a frictionless connection between technology and hospitality. To do this, both cofounders constantly keep each other balanced and evaluate each change they make to make sure that the modifications will benefit the company both technologically and economically. Product success will also help in other ways. While advertising, marketing, and sales promotions do build hype around a product, the best PR comes from letting the product speak for itself. Allowing customers to share their own experiences with a product and tell their friends and families about the reasons why they love it is invaluable and extremely effective. The easiest way to make sure this happens is to have a team that focuses on the product itself, not the revenue it generates.

Healthy competition. When direct competitors are out there in the market, do not hide from them, embrace them! Your competitors will have products that serve a purpose similar to yours and may even utilize a similar platform as yours- this is extremely beneficial as it familiarizes the consumer population with your product type. For example, SpeedETab’s major competitors include other mobile ordering platforms such as the Starbucks app, Chipotle app, etc. Users who have been using these apps to order their favorite items from various venues are already educated about the benefits of mobile ordering. This reduces the efforts SpeedETab has to make to inform the public about the uses of mobile ordering, thus cutting down on promotional costs the company would have to incur. Furthermore, SpeedETab can use the fact that it has so many competitors to capitalize on the way that it streamlines mobile ordering from many venues into just one simple app. This way, instead of users having pages of mobile ordering applications on their phones, they can maximize their efficiency by just having one, SpeedETab. So remember, use your competitors’ similarities to further highlight your unique factors.

Team dynamics. To be successful in any venture, it is essential to have a diverse yet coherent team. At the inception of many startups, entrepreneurs often find themselves wearing many hats: that of a brand ambassador, marketing executive, operations director, financier, product developer, etc. While it may seem invigorating at first, this causes many entrepreneurs to burn out quickly, thus making their startup suffer. In a tech-centered business, it is often beneficial to have one cofounder who handles the business aspect and one who focuses on product development and technology. After acquiring the necessary funds, however, cofounders must recruit a structured team of specialists and delegate tasks to ensure that the company’s goals are met in an efficient manner. Communication amongst team members is necessary to make sure all team members are connected and aware of the company’s overall progress and direction. Good leaders should also focus on seeing that relationships between colleagues are both professional and amicable.

Want to gain more advice from leading entrepreneurs? Come to Startup Grind Miami’s next event on June 13. More information will be on StartupGrind.com/miami.

Rhiya Mittal is a student at the University of Miami, currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience along with minors in Chemistry, Health Sector Management & Policy, and Marketing. She hopes to work on further merging the fields of healthcare and marketing and attend medical school in the future. Reach her at RhiyaMittal@gmail.com

May 24, 2016

Broward College launches accelerator in downtown Fort Lauderdale

Broward College announced the launch of its business accelerator, to be located at the downtown Fort Lauderdale campus on Las Olas Boulevard.

“This marks an exciting time for startup companies in Broward County,” said J. David Armstrong, Jr., president of Broward College. “Our business community partners have shared with us the need for support beyond the initial planning and business plan phase. We listened, and our accelerator will provide wraparound services to budding entrepreneurs as they refine their businesses to seek funding.”

The announcement comes on the heels of the success of the Innovation Hub at Broward College. In less than a year, Innovation Hub, directed by Enrique Triay with support from Professor Steven Gross, has generated significant activity. At the present time, there are 20 companies that reside -- or have weekly contact with -- the Innovation Hub, and many are capitalizing on the expertise provided by Triay and Professor Gross; business people who serve as consultants; and numerous students who actively are involved as interns in these companies. Two companies currently at Innovation Hub will be a part of Broward College’s new accelerator program.