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2019 Leadership Award Winners

The Specialty Food Association’s Seventh Annual Leadership Awards honor food industry frontrunners who go above and beyond by creating positive social, economic, and/or environmental impact through innovation and vision. Their efforts build a better world.

While managing successful businesses, Leadership Award winners also:

  • Demonstrate sound ethics, professionalism, transparency and collegiality within our industry
  • Pioneer innovative products, practices, and business models
  • Advance food standards and the positive role food can play in the future of society

Our 2019 winners range from a former Peace Corps volunteer who is using the leaves of moringa trees to improve the lives of women in West Aftrica to a former chef pioneering the plant-based cheese revolution to a young man who started a company while in college that makes local food available year-round. They will be honored at the Leadership Awards Ceremony and Reception, which will take place on Sunday, January 13, from 5 – 6 pm at Moscone Center in San Francisco. All Show attendees are welcome to attend to celebrate the social good being done by the specialty food industry.

Leadership Awards are given in three categories:

  • Business Leadership: Advancing best practices across the spectrum of workforce issues to benefit food industry personnel.
  • Citizenship: Improving the lives of people and communities by advancing environmental and social sustainability knowledge and practice.
  • Vision: Pioneering new approaches, innovative products and business models to set in motion positive change and progress.

Members of the Specialty Food Association and others in the trade nominate individuals for the Leadership Awards. A panel of judges who sit on the SFA’s Hall of Fame/Lifetime Achievement Committee, selected the winners. They include Lou Foah, Foah International LLC; Maha Freij, Les Trois Petits Cochons; Scott Jensen, Rhythm Superfoods LLC; and Sharon Meehan, Ham I Am!/Starbucks Coffee Co.

BUSINESS LEADERSHIP

Miyoko Schinner, Miyoko’s

Thirty years ago, Miyoko Schinner saw an opportunity to get into a business that could help affect social change. Her personal form of activism was to show consumers that healthy, sustainably produced, vegan food “could be absolutely delicious,” she says.

In the 1980s, Miyoko had gone to live in Tokyo. Digestion problems had prompted her to give up dairy. Heavy cream, butter, and cheese were flavors she used to love so she wanted a plant-based way to capture that taste profile. She played with nuts and cashew cream until she got the same sense of satisfaction.

She opened a restaurant in Tokyo, taught vegan cooking classes, and wrote her first vegan cookbook in Japanese, which she translated into English. In 1989, she moved to the Bay Area, selling vegan cakes she baked at home. Eventually she opened Now and Zen, a small bakery-bistro in San Francisco that morphed into a natural food company making meat substitutes, vegan cinnamon rolls, and chocolate chip cookies. She sold the company in 2003, wrote more vegan cookbooks and taught more classes.

Her 2012 cookbook, “Artisan Vegan Cheese,” became a cult classic and people started asking why she wasn’t starting her own cheese business. Why not? she thought. The Petaluma-based Miyoko’s Kitchen launched in 2014.

Revenue has doubled every year, says Miyoko, 61, who has 96 employees and 19 SKUs. Miyoko’s Kitchen is carried nationwide in 6,000 outlets, from natural food stores to Target. Plant-based, fermented butter and mozzarella are her biggest sellers. Flexitarians – not vegetarians or vegans – are the majority of her customers.

“My elevator pitch now is ‘We’re revolutionizing dairy products with plants, making butter and cheese without using any cow’s milk,’” she says. “That’s usually enough to have people go, ‘Oooh, really? Tell me more about it.’”

Highlights

  • 1991: Schinner’s first cookbook, “The Now and Zen Epicure,” is published.
  • 1994: Schinner opens Now and Zen, a vegan restaurant in San Francisco.
  • 2012: “Artisan Vegan Cheese” is published, kicking off the vegan cheese revolution.
  • 2014: Miyoko’s Kitchen is founded in Fairfax, CA; 10 cheese wheels enter the market via eCommerce.
  • 2015: Fresh Vegan Mozzarella is launched on a small scale
  • 2016: Miyoko’s European-style Cultured VeganButter is introduced
  • 2017: New 30,000-square-foot facility in Petaluma becomes company headquarters; Bon Appetit magazine rates Miyoko’s Kitchen French-style Winter Truffle one of the six best vegan cheeses in the country
  • 2018: Homestyle Plain Vegan Cream Cheese and Vegan Roadhouse Cheese are released

VISION

Patrick Mateer, Seal the Seasons

What if local blackberries and blueberries were available year-round at your neighborhood grocer? Frozen, of course, but harvested at peak ripeness by a farmer down the road, not in Ecuador or Chile. The price wouldn’t be out of reach either.

That was the vision of Patrick Mateer, 25, the CEO of Seal the Seasons. He founded the company in 2014 while still in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While working at a fresh food distributor and a farmer’s market, he noted a disconnect.

“I saw how the local produce went over so well, the benefits for consumers – higher quality, taste, nutrition – but it was seasonal, hard to do year-round, often expensive, and inconvenient,” he says. “I wanted to eliminate the barriers, reduce food waste, and maximize crop yields by partnering with family farms and larger, mid-size farms to make it really easy for grocery stores to buy local.”

Today, more than 3,000 outlets in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, and Southwest carry the Seal the Seasons brand in their freezer sections.

Seal the Seasons has provided local growers with a 52-week market for perishable berries as well as peaches, apples, and cherries. In each region, a partner-farmer’s image appears on the packaging. For more specific traceability, the company’s website allows consumers to type in a lot code to see exactly where it came from.

Affordability is a primary focus, not organic certification or cosmetic beauty. Fruit can be marred by hail, excessive rain, or sun. “When it’s frozen and you blend it up in a smoothie, you care less if it’s blemished,” Mateer says.

Seal the Seasons generated more than $1 million last year, says Mateer, who has 9 employees. Teams travel around the country to inspect participating farms, looking at groundwater reports and making sure food safety and fair labor practices are met.

Farm-to-freezer is just the start. “Our 10-year vision,” Mateer says, “is to make local food available in every aisle in the grocery store.”

Highlights

  • 2014: Patrick Mateer co-founds Seal the Seasons while participating in the University of North Carolina’s social entrepreneurship program.
  • 2015: Seal the Seasons wins $50,000 SECU (State Employees Credit Union) Emerging Issue Prize for Innovation; Mateer graduates from college.
  • 2016: First major grocer, Harris Teeter, starts stocking Seal the Seasons’ flash-frozen local produce, followed by Whole Foods in Virginia and the Carolinas.
  • 2018: Expands footprint to the Northeast, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, and Southwest; Mateer named one of Forbes’ top 30 social entrepreneurs under 30 years old; raised $1.8 million in private equity offering.

CITIZENSHIP

Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli

Lisa Curtis, 30, starts her day with a tablespoon of green moringa powder added to oatmeal with almond butter, chia seeds, and baobab, an African superfruit. It’s the moringa that gives her energy, she says, something she discovered in 2010 when she was in the Peace Corps, in Niger, West Africa.

Curtis got her first taste of moringa after she told some women at the community health center that she felt weak, malnourished, and they suggested she try it. She mixed the green leaves with a West African peanut snack called kuli-kuli and soon felt her vigor return. And yet moringa is caffeine-free. She had to learn more.

Moringa trees grow like weeds in tropical regions, are drought-resistant, and for thousands of years have been used in Ayurvedic medicine. The nutrient-dense leaves are a significant source of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B6, potassium, protein, iron, and fiber. Studies have shown it to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The taste is earthy and a bit peppery, similar to arugula.

Curtis’s Peace Corps stint was cut short after Al Qaeda kidnapped and killed two Frenchmen in Niger and everyone had to be evacuated. She vowed to return, especially to help the village women who had helped her. Introducing moringa to the U.S. marketplace became her passion.

“The best advice I got was, ‘Before you start a startup, go work at a startup,’” she says. Thus, for three years she worked in Oakland at Mosaic, a solar finance company where she was the communications director. By the end of 2013 she felt ready to quit her day job and work full-time on Kuli Kuli, the name she’d chosen for her moringa enterprise.

Crowdfunding campaigns helped launch the company in 2014. Curtis spent six months doing demos and convincing store owners to carry moringa, sold as a green powder and boost for juices, smoothies, and guacamole among a host of other possibilities.

Curtis worked with a team that trained moringa farmers how to wash and dry the leaves, then pound them into a powder with a mortar and pestle. The raw product is organic, vegan, and non-GMO. She raised another $4.25 million to build and expand the supply chain to 13 different countries, including Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ecuador. More than two million moringa trees have been planted, employing roughly 1,300 farmers, primarily women.

Last year, Kuli Kuli had $5 million in revenue. There are 15 Kuli Kuli SKUs sold in 7,000 stores nationwide, including energy bars, teas, and shots in flavors like Coconut Lime, Raspberry, and Ginger Lemon. Curtis is frequently on the road and if she forgets to pack moringa – or enthusiastically gives all her packets away – she feels a loss of energy, which reinforces how she knows she’s on the right path.

Highlights

  • 2010: Lisa Curtis joins the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa; tastes moringa leaves for the first time.
  • 2011: Curtis is evacuated from Niger after a terrorist attack, begins work at Mosaic, a solar finance startup
  • 2013: Quits Mosaic to work full-time on launching Kuli Kuli; crowdfunding campaign raises nearly $53,000 to produce Moringa Superfood Bars, introduced at Oakland Whole Foods.
  • 2014: Kuli Kuli launches as a company; crowdfunding raises an additional $350,000 via Agfunder.
  • 2015: Kuli Kuli announces an initiative with Whole Foods, the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti Program, and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance to plant hundreds of moringa trees in Haiti and sell a Moringa Green Energy Shot made with Haitian moringa.
  • 2016: Nationwide launch with Whole Foods Market as well as Safeway/Albertsons; closes $4.25 million Series A funding.
  • 2018: Curtis is named one of Forbes’ top 30 social entrepreneurs under 30 years old.
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