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How do we make the Austin food scene more diverse? Through programs like this

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Delisa Johnson and Zach Harper started Funky Mello marshmallows in June 2020 and were recently accepted into the SKU M/O Track accelerator program.

Food businesses like Fiesta Tortillas have been a part of Austin’s economy almost since the company's founding. 

Family-run and focused on making one or two food products really well, Fiesta Tortillas started with someone who had a trade, an ability to talk to people and a dream to make a living from a product otherwise made in the kitchen. 

These consumer packaged goods, or CPG, companies weren’t called that then, but by the time Adams Extract was using horse-drawn wagons to move its extracts and flavors around the city and beyond in the late 1800s and Mexene was filling Republic Square Park with the smell of chili powder in the early 1900s, Austin food businesses were thriving. 

Today, there are hundreds of food businesses that call Austin home, in part because of several organizations that help launch and support them. One of the longest-running, called SKU, named after the industry term for stock-keeping unit, is a startup accelerator and mentorship program for CPG companies that are ready to go big. 

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Founded by industry veterans Shari Wynne Ressler and Clayton Christopher in 2011, the accelerator has helped dozens of companies catapult into the mainstream market, including heavy hitters Epic Provisions, Austin Eastciders and Siete Family Foods. Although any CPG business can apply for SKU, the program hadn’t specifically sought founders who are people of color or created programming specifically to serve them.

But after last summer’s protests brought attention to the lack of diversity in many industries across the country, SKU's chief operating officer Michelle Breyer started working with Emily Kealey, then the executive director of Naturally Austin, an organization founded in 2019 to support local CPG companies in the natural foods and wellness space, on a program that would specifically support and accelerate businesses owned by people of color. 

Together, they came up with M/O, a fellowship, mentorship and educational program that started a few months ago to give those business owners access to a network of seasoned professionals and a curriculum to help them grow. (M/O is focused on minority-owned CPGs, thus the name, but it's also a new "modus operandi to champion and grow these businesses going forward," managing director Kirstin Ross wrote in a post about the launch.)

Austinite Naijean Bernard founded Jeany's Ginger Elixir in 2016, and she recently participated in Naturally Austin's M/O fellowship, a new program to help entrepreneurs of color. She was accepted into SKU's accelerator program following the fellowship.

Katrina Tolentino took over as executive director of Naturally Austin when Kealey became the chief marketing officer of partner organization Notley. She says they hoped to get 40 applicants for the fellowship part of the program, which was open to both new and established businesses. Nearly 80 founders applied. "We couldn't believe it," Tolentino says.

Of those business owners, the ones who were ready to expand outside of the Austin market could apply for the accelerator part of the program, called SKU M/O Track. 

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Last week, SKU announced that 10 companies were accepted into the program: Luv Fats Ice Cream and Jeany's Ginger Elixir, two of my favorite local farmers market products; Hangio, which makes flexible hangers; the smart lightbulb company Ujamaa; Homescape Pets, which sells cat and dog supplements; WAJU, a line of sparkling waters made from fruit; Algo Dulce, a flan dessert company; Naturally Noah’s plant-based Vietnamese noodles; Babka ATX, which sells a line of babka breads; and Funky Mello, a gourmet marshmallow company from Delisa and Zach Harper. 

The Funky Mello team moved to Austin from Houston specifically to start their business in the city's thriving CPG industry, says Delisa Johnson. They officially launched the company in June 2020, less than six months after moving to Austin. 

Harper and Johnson, who met at a music festival and love to camp, are “the biggest sweet tooths you’ll ever meet,” he says. They don’t eat animal products and wanted a vegan marshmallow that could melt and could be flavored in different ways. 

The company started with online-only sales last year and has taken a brief pause while the owners transition from the Naturally Austin program into SKU. (When they relaunch sales later this year, check out their rotating line of seasonal flavors, including margarita and pumpkin spice.)

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Algo Dulce is a farmers market favorite that recently participated in a new business development fellowship from Naturally Austin called M/O. Starting this month, the company is also part of SKU's accelerator program.

Zach Harper worked in the packaging industry, and Delisa Johnson knew the marketing and sales side of things. Naturally Austin’s M/O fellowship offered classes where they could fill in the gaps of what they didn’t already know about the food business. 

“There are so many great networking opportunities that we wouldn’t have been a part of,” Delisa Johnson says. “They really do listen to our pain points as we’re growing and what we’re interested in learning about to carefully match us up. Before M/O, we taught ourselves everything through Google. We’ve learned so much more than what we could have learned by ourselves.”

The Harpers say that the diversity of the group validated their decision to move to Austin. “Every time we join a class, we see all these different faces and can relate on a certain level and address some of the similar issues,” she says. “We’re all out here, working together and helping each other out.” 

Tauri Laws-Phillips — who is co-owner of Coldtowne Theater, a local improv comedian and a diversity, equity and inclusion trainer — came on board as a marketing and growth mentor at SKU earlier this year. As a Black business owner, she has experienced countless micro and macroaggressions in the business world. 

“I’ve dealt with a myriad of things that are shocking and ridiculous, and there’s a lot of trauma involved with that,” Laws-Phillips says. “When I started working for myself, the hope is that you’ll be able to leave that behind, but that’s just not true.” 

Laws-Phillips says that the SKU and Naturally Austin programs can help business owners find ways to be successful in a system that, in many ways, was built to exclude them. It’s helpful to partner with people who understand code-switching or colorism, for example.

“It’s so easy to discount those things, but when a brand can speak to that, it gives deep brand connection,” she says. “Mentors shouldn’t question how authentic someone should be within their own culture. You get to be all of you and let everybody else deal.”

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Laws-Phillips says the new SKU program is also designed to help white investors, mentors and other people in the industry unpack their own unconscious biases that have prevented people of color from having the same access to capital, resources and opportunities. 

Tolentino says the response has been overwhelming. A few times a week since March, the founders have come together for classes on subjects such as financial literacy, pricing, marketing and distribution, and breakout sessions, as well as networking and mentoring meetings. “A lot of them are entrepreneurs who aren’t plugged in, in part because they don’t feel like the food business world is for them,” she says. 

Not all of the businesses participating in the fellowship were ready for the accelerator, but Tolentino says they will continue to have classes and programming to support the participants so they can apply in future years if they would like to.

"The goal of our fellowship is to acknowledge the experiences of these founders and help them show up as themselves without having to explain themselves," she says. "They have been so excited to be connecting with one another. We are setting them up for success so they can be as helpful as possible to other business owners, too.” 

A note from Addie

It's amazing to see this kind of effort to make the food space a more diverse and inclusive space. And to be frank, it's probably taken too long, but it's never too late to start.

To create equity in the food system, though, it takes folks at every level, from sourcing and packing to distribution and sales, to look at their own biases and to expand access to education, financing and fellowship. 

That's why I'm excited to share three more pieces of news in this realm: First, De J. Lozada of Soul Popped Gourmet Popcorn has launched the National Association of Black Food Manufacturers, a group that started this spring to provide educational and networking opportunities to Black food manufacturers across the country. You can find out more about this group at nabfm.org.

Texas Farmers Market, the organization that runs the Mueller and Lakeline markets, has created a scholarship fund to support Black, Indigenous and other people of color who want to sell at the markets. The scholarships are available to farmers and small business owners within 150 miles of Austin.

And third, Siete, one of the most successful companies to come out of SKU, announced the Siete “Juntos” Fund, a $25,000 award to a Latiné-owned food business 

These small and not-so-small efforts are what the food industry needs so that the people who are making and selling food products in the grocery store look more like the people who are buying them. 

— A.B.

Correction: This story originally misspelled the names of Emily Kealey, Kirstin Ross and Tauri Laws-Phillips.