Calling All Food Startups 

Plus Café Gratitude reverses course, and Oakland dining destinations offer deep discounts.

This weekend's Fancy Food Show in San Francisco was packed with success stories that would make Horatio Alger beam with pride. Take Hodo Soy Beanery, started in 2004 by a Vietnamese transplant who left a day job in finance to create artisanal soy goods. This wildly successful tofu operation now maintains a twelve-thousand-square-foot production facility in Oakland and just last week started selling its products through Costco. Or there's Back to the Roots, a two-year-old startup that recycles used coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. Created by two UC Berkeley students with no food background, Back to the Roots has gained the support of Alice Waters and rescued millions of pounds of grounds from landfills, and is sold at Whole Foods stores across the country.

I suspect this type of story speaks to many of you. Did your babushka entrust you with her top-secret pirohzhki recipe from seven generations back, and you suspect it's your Golden Ticket? Are you suffocating from your job as a claims adjuster, sitting on an unrealized dream to peddle honey-infused mochi waffles?

It's far too easy to let these aspirations grow musty on the shelf. Don't put it off another year: 2012 begins with a couple of simple ways to launch your food startup dreams.

First off, Berkeley's own Susie Wyshak is teaching a seminar called Resolution to Reality: So You Want to Be a Food Entrepreneur. Wyshak worked for years at Foodzie.com, the massive online marketplace for small-batch foodstuffs, and has helped scores of food startups find their footing. On Thursday, January 26, at the David Brower Center (2150 Allston Way, Berkeley), she'll survey a range of topics for people who are already starting their own food business, or who have an idea they aren't sure what to do with.

Wyshak's focus will be on food production and manufacturing businesses, as opposed to restaurants and mobile food vendors. Moving at a fast clip, Wyshak will discuss all the basics: how items can be produced, with what resources, at what cost, and for what profit. She will also dissect a local product (I suspect it'll be Blue Chair Fruit Jam), examining its ingredients, packaging, and production methods.

Wyshak cautions this isn't going to be a cheerleading session. "I'm not going to lie to you: starting a food business can be hard," she said. "This class is as much to weed out the people who aren't up to the challenge as to help out those who are."

You can get free tickets to the class at ResolutiontoReality.eventbrite.com. These tickets are for members of Hub, a networking group for budding entrepreneurs, but no proof of membership is required. (If you want to play by the rules, Wyshak says a $25 Hub membership is more than worth it.)

And for the wannabe food entrepreneur with a competitive streak, an American Idol-style contest is underway, pitting Bay Area aspirants against their New York counterparts. Called the Next BIG Small Brand, the event asks only that you come with "a tasty idea and a clear idea of your future empire," according to promotional materials. Winners receive all the branding, marketing, and PR necessary to make it big.

The judges are a panel of local and national food celebs like Chad Robertson, owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Finalists get flown to New York for a showdown (two nights in a schmancy hotel!). Sign up before February 5 at NextBigSmallBrand.com.

Café Gratitude Hiring in Berkeley and San Francisco

After all the hullabaloo following the announcement that Café Gratitude was closing its Northern California stores, the weird saga ended abruptly last week. Owner Matt Engelhart announced that the legal woes forcing them out of business are resolved, and some stores will now remain open.

I spoke with both Engelhart and Stephen Sommers, the plaintiff's attorney in the labor lawsuits against Café Gratitude. Both men robotically intoned, "It has been resolved" without giving details; their agreement involved a public gag order. Neither would admit that a financial settlement had been reached (though that is the assumption) and Engelhart would not say which stores were remaining open.

However: The company's Facebook page indicates they are hiring in Berkeley and San Francisco. When I mentioned this to Engelhart, he said, "Really? I actually have no idea which stores are hiring. That's not my job." He said he plans to scale back his work life in the coming months to focus on writing a book and growing veggies.

This weekend, Café Gratitude hosted a national seminar in Big Sur on "Sacred Commerce." Among the topics explored was using labor conflicts as a "chance to heal collective wounds." Apparently, the healing starts now.

Oakland Restaurant Week

It's that magical time of year when cheapskates and dapper diners become as one. From January 20-29, many of Oakland's ritzier dining destinations will offer three-course lunch menus for $20 or three-course dinners for $30 or $40. The participant list is heavy on tourist-driven and hotel restaurants, but I'd bypass the Marriott in favor of sure bets like Camino, Hibiscus, and Picán. For a full list of restaurants, go to VisitOakland.org/restaurantweek.;

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