Kickstarter Food Stars

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At this point it is almost axiomatic that a compelling video is necessary for a project to be successful. For example, North Mountain Pastures gives a two-and-a-half-minute tour of their Pennsylvania farmstead with a sincere, understated voiceover, and violin backing that brings to mind a Ken Burns documentary. Homesweet Homegrown, in soliciting support for a canning and preserving cookbook, took an opposite approach, showcased in an 11-minute video of its gloriously sozzled authors putting up jars of tomato sauce; it’s loose and eccentric—like the great British TV chef Keith Floyd reimagined by the makers of Portlandia. And some, like the one for (organic, non-GMO, sustainably packaged) Quinn microwave popcorn, are so pitch-perfect that our current crop of presidential candidates would be thrilled to have their creators in their employ.

Before launching their Kickstarter campaign for Quinn Popcorn, founders Kristy and Coulter Lewis researched not just popcorn but Kickstarter itself. “We spent a little bit of time watching videos, and knew instantly what worked, and what didn’t,” says Kristy. “It’s really hard to sum up your brand in a sentence, so we took images of what we loved. We wanted to show that it’s not something that comes from a factory in China.” What the husband-and-wife team came up with was high-grade Americana: images of cornfields and pickup trucks, horses and friendly dogs, and their newborn son (the company’s namesake), all set to upbeat acoustic guitar music. As a piece of branding it was undeniably effective.

Liz Zapf was moved enough by the Lewises to contribute. “You got, from the beginning, that they really cared, and were excited about their idea and that they were kind of nervous about doing this,” she says. “You could see that they were doing it for the first time, and that it was a big punt.”

And for the Lewises, it was a big punt. After maxing out their credit cards and tapping friends and family for all they could, Kristy and Coulter still needed, at minimum, another $10,000 to bring their first batch of 6,000 two-bag boxes to market. Along with Zapf, 754 other people bought into Quinn Popcorn—more than 300 people contributed $35 for a box of each of three flavors: Parmesan & Rosemary, Lemon & Sea Salt, and Vermont Maple & Sea Salt.

In the case of Quinn, the transaction was pretty straightforward: The Lewises made a packaged- food product, and that was what supporters were getting for their contributions. Getting the product into the hands of consumers was the goal. The infusion of capital and word of mouth from the campaign were enough to attract the interest of vendors like Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca. The Lewises have already sold 75 percent of their second batch of 20,000 boxes, and are scrambling to get a third batch ready before the popcorn runs out.

Making and selling a packaged-food product is not the only way entrepreneurs use Kickstarter. Restaurants have also been turning to Kickstarter for seed money, though the amounts raised are almost never enough to be a restaurant’s sole source of funds.

In Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, two New York restaurant veterans (they both worked at the very popular City Bakery), Sara Dima and Ilene Rosen, used Kickstarter to find an additional $10,000 to offset the opening costs of their cafe, 606 R&D. Their pitch focused on one aspect of their incipient project, the acquisition of a Donut Robot Mark 1 machine, finding the lucrative intersection of two things Kickstarter patrons love: donuts and robots. A dollar contribution got you a donut on your first visit to the café, and $1,000 got you the privilege of creating a custom flavor and then spending a day manning the robot as it churned your namesake baby out.

Knowing that they had enough money to open their business with or without a Kickstarter-funded donut machine allowed Rosen to take a somewhat more bemused attitude toward the campaign. With a wry smile, she admitted to finding the process of making the video “dreadful,” but overall enjoyed the process of mounting a Kickstarter campaign: “It’s fun. It feels like online dating. With cash.” She adds, “Really, either it’ll be all good, or it’ll be all good plus 10 grand.”

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