“…I was in the midst of the access and sharing economy. And I had an epiphany while using Uber. The fact that I could get an on demand private car in three minutes, via my smartphone and present no method of payment was game changing. The ease of interface got me thinking about how our interactions with technology are becoming so seamless and integrated in our lives. Applying this to the food system, it dawned on me that there were underutilized kitchens sitting vacant…and I started thinking that maybe I should create an on demand access community around this idea.” – Ashley Colpaart, founder, The Food Corridor
About Ashley Colpaart: Ashley Colpaart is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and doctoral candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies in Food Science and Food Safety at Colorado State University. She earned a Masters of Science in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She is the Founder and CEO of The Food Corridor, a food tech startup in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Ashley’s research and writing has been published on the U.S. Food Policy blog, Environmental Nutrition, the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, Today’s Dietitian and Tufts Nutrition Magazine. Ashley has received numerous awards for her work, including the Western Extension Young Professional Award, the Tufts Presidential Award for Active Citizenship and Public Service, the Excellence in Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Award and most recently, the 2014 E. Neige Todhunter Memorial Doctoral Fellowship from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Colpaart recently took top honors in the seventh annual University of Northern Colorado Monfort College of Business Entrepreneurial Challenge, winning $25,000 for her efforts on the Food Corridor.
Ashley sat down with us to talk about the intersection of technology and the food system, entrepreneurship…and what she sees ahead.
Q: Can you talk to our readers about food and tech start-ups and give us a bit of information about the lay of the land?
Ashley: My feeling right now is that there are a lot of well-intentioned people wanting to do very interesting things, but with very little context. I’ve been working in food systems for 15 years. I’ve seen many communities, organizations, grants and people trying to do innovative things. Some of these things have taken off a little bit and many have not been successful. Lately it seems like everyone’s an expert in food and that there is only one right way to do things…and that can detract from the broader conversation.
We’re in a really interesting time where the economy is moving again, technology is integrated into our lives in more intimate ways and we have access to information in ways we never did before. That’s leading to an explosion of ideas and potential within the food and technology space. It’s awesome. Consumers are excited by food delivery, pop ups, new artisan products and better ways to connect around food.
What’s ironic is that at the core of all of these very strong opinions about food and technology is the issue of the role of technology in food production, which is a huge debate the country is having. There are so many advocates for food and technology, but some are against using technology in agriculture. There is a friction point here and a tension that is interesting.
People have a bucolic vision of how food production used to be…and it will never be that way again. You can’t step in the same river twice. We need to be realistic about our expectations and value the tools that we have available. Some of the tools are being lambasted before given a fair analysis; tools that could solve some of the major crises of our time. I find it fascinating that the food movement was initially based in environmentalism and that many leaders of that movement dismiss some of the tools outright before looking at the opportunities their use could bring to help us make progress on the things they care deeply about.
Q: What is the Food Corridor?
Ashley: The Food Corridor is a technology company that is kind of like an Airbnb for commercial kitchen space. We are building a marketplace for commercial and community kitchens on top of a tech platform (in our case, software as a service). I understand food systems, but we’re a tech company. I needed to bring on a founder who understood software development to build the product. I wrote about that experience for Medium. Also, funding a start-up is a challenge. Investors want to see traction and sales before they invest. We are currently bootstrapping the company and applying for competitive grants. Starting a company and fundraising are both full-time jobs.
Q: Can you tell us what you’re trying to accomplish with The Food Corridor?
Ashley: I came to Colorado to work on my PhD under Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a well know researcher and practitioner in the area of food system economics and supply chain innovations. My early passion – when I was just out of Tufts – was how to strengthen regional food systems, what the economic impact might be and how to create resiliency. I’m now ABD (aka purgatory). I’d just finished my prelims when there was a job opening for a coordinator for the Northern Colorado Food Cluster. The position was funded out of economic development in Fort Collins. This industry cluster focused on regionalizing the food system by convening all stakeholders…farmer, eater, big and small commercial enterprises and the community under one umbrella to talk about high impact projects we can do as region to strengthen local and regional economy. It was a great opportunity to have applied work and get to know this community better.
I helped the group form a non-profit, establish a board, hire an executive director and set up subcommittees. Then I returned to my original dissertation project, which revolved around the integration of sustainability and the theory of sustainability within the dietetic profession. It’s a study on how these words appeared in the literature, such as academy journals, presentations, etc. What did sustainability mean for these practitioners? At that time I was also not feeling professionally engaged by my work in professional dietetics. I took a month off and got invited to go to Washington, D.C. to sit on a USDA community food systems panel, which was determining recipients of grants in the $300,000-400,000 range. I was a teaching assistant in the community food system class at Tufts, so I was excited to be on the panel and see the projects.
What I saw in the USDA grants were a lot of projects wanting to build processing and distribution infrastructure for local produce. However, in many of the business models, the applicants wanted to get free food from farmers or pay discounts and give food away. And this is not sustainable in the real economy. I found it frustrating. And enlightening.
At the same time I was reviewing these grants, I took Uber for the first time…and I was also staying in an Airbnb rental. So I was in the midst of the access and sharing economy. And I had an epiphany while using Uber. The fact that I could get an on demand private car in three minutes, via my smartphone and present no method of payment was game changing. The ease of interface got me thinking about how our interactions with technology are becoming so seamless and integrated in our lives. Applying this to the food system, it dawned on me that there were underutilized kitchens sitting vacant…and I started thinking that maybe I should create an on demand access community around this idea.
I became obsessed with the idea. Is anyone doing this? I have to do this. This is awesome.
I went to Fort Collins’ start-up week and was advised to talk to 100 people in my industry. People gave me amazing feedback…what a great idea! The time has come! You’re the right person to do this!
Back at Colorado State, I had a halfway finished dissertation, but my energy and excitement was around this new project. So I went back to my faculty advisor and asked if I could use this proof of concept project for my dissertation research. I’d surveyed hundreds of shared use kitchens, entrepreneurs, and coordinate a pilot with twelve commercial kitchens in Northern Colorado. She was on board with it. All my committee members were supportive and excited about the applied nature of the work.
Q: Where do you see this going in five years? What do you think we’ll be talking about then?
Ashley: What I love about what we’re developing is that the technology is completely scalable. Local food systems are really place-based. This technology is a tool all place-based regions can use in the same dynamic way. Starting in Colorado and fortifying the food system here provides a good test zone. We hope to see it becoming a network of regional food systems that are connected through this infrastructure platform that we are creating …not only a regional food hub, but also a virtual hub for hubs.
I get nervous reading about trends in food tech startups. Good Eggs was a well-intentioned enterprise with a great vision. The company built an amazing technological platform but didn’t have the depth of knowledge about farmers, supply chains, and constraints…they assumed it was easy to aggregate and deliver food. I see a lot of food tech startups making the same assumptions. People with decades of experience are still trying to figure out how to do this well. There is a lot of money going into food delivery types of businesses. That will be interesting to watch. There will be few winners and more losers in that space.
I also see that a lot of on demand enterprises work for a certain subset of customers. The model is not democratized. I see it work well in Silicon Valley and big cities and mostly for people with a great deal of disposable income that can afford these services. But it also creates subculture of gig economy labor that’s supporting those niceties. With Uber we have to think about who is looking out for drivers, for example. Are we creating a class system where some have access to these things and the rest are working for those services?
Q: You’re striving to be a company that’s economically sustainable but also invested in doing good in your community. Is there a tension in that?
Ashley: One of the most exciting parts about what we’re doing and which gets me up in the morning is that we’re connecting companies and people and communities. We’re supporting community centers, schools and churches that have under-utilized assets they can monetize. There are food entrepreneurs who are desperate to access kitchen space to scale up or get their business going. Farmers need cold storage. It’s a win-win.
And The Food Corridor wins because we offer a service at a fee that covers our cost and capitalizes enhancements to the platform. We think valuable ancillary services can be added on to the marketplace once we have liquidity built into the platform. For example, we may create regional buying clubs that help members get more reasonable rates on services (ex: insurance, sourcing, maintenance). It ends up being self-fulfilling prophecy: more use leads to more good.
Q: What are some other things that you are seeing?
Ashley: It is interesting to consider how we’re different than other on demand economic models. We’re working within the confines of a legal and regulatory system, not outside one (which is the trend you’re seeing). We know that it is too risky for our company to skirt food safety laws and regulations.
The cottage food movement wants the ability to produce more food in homes and sell direct to the consumer. I have a background in food safety and see some risk aspects to that. We’re monetizing commercial kitchens that are already regulated by the health department. I think we’re adding value, because we can help companies scale up faster, with less risk. Lots don’t want to hear that; they say “get government off my back.” That differentiates us. The health department staff I have talked to love the idea of getting people out of their homes and into commercial spaces.
There are also opportunities to use our platform for innovation. In our case, it’s facilitating access to commercial kitchen space. When you give folks access to a resource that they didn’t know they had access to, they get creative about using it…pop-up dinners, canning days, cooking shows, food photography, meal delivery services. Groups could rent a commercial kitchen, or host a top chef kids cooking competition. The uses are pretty endless.
Q: What’s concerning you about your part of the food system?
Ashley: I see lots of people going into the food business space with a limited understanding of the complexity. During our pilot program (January-March 2016) we had 45 food entrepreneurs (in Colorado) fill out our survey; they were looking for commercial food space. About 20% of them hadn’t done adequate business planning (finding insurance, securing a business license, or securing a food handling card). Many weren’t yet doing the real things you have to do to become a viable business, such as business planning, considering profit margins, exploring sales channels etc. Some think starting a food business is going to be fun, but it’s tough. You have to understand the industry. I do worry about folks putting time, money, and energy into something they don’t understand a lot about. In some ways it is similar to what has happened in farming. There’s a romantic sense about it, but farming is hard work and not a path to riches.
Q: What’s inspiring you?
Ashley: I am spending my day-to-day embedded in a culture that is about growth in business incubation. The startup community is becoming a culture of shared office space and accelerators…and interestingly, the same thing that’s happened in the technology space is also happening in the food space. Folks have been sharing kitchens for a long time, but not in very formal way. The rise of the food incubator is inspiring. I think The Food Corridor is the kind of value-driven platform that will enable food incubator owners to get out of the office so they can get back in the kitchen and focus on supporting the food entrepreneurs that inspire them.
Q: Did you ever imagine you’d be doing this kind of work?
Ashley: My dad is an immigrant from Holland. He was a hardware engineer in Silicon Valley during the early boom years and helped design the first microprocessor chips. We moved to Texas, where my mom had catering companies and started a salsa company. Technically, I was raised on chips and salsa. Now I’m starting a food technology company and I’ve come to the realization that it makes perfect sense…
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the UC Food Observer and is re-published here with permission.