Words: Ben Kerrick | Photos: Hope & Main
Nearly 11 years ago, Lisa Raiola founded food business incubator Hope & Main to help strengthen the food system in Warren, Rhode Island. It was an idea that came out of one of the toughest times of Lisa’s life. While battling Stage 4 cancer, Lisa began changing her diet to focus on eating locally grown, clean food, but as a medical shut-in she couldn’t shop or cook for herself.
“People helped me by assisting me to get the food that I wanted,” Lisa recalls. “It was hard food to get. You didn’t know what the provenance of that food was, most food that you bought at that time. So I said, ‘if I ever get better, I’m going to pay forward this kindness by starting a food business that would prepare essentially clean food for people who were medically shut in because they’d had surgeries or maybe they had a baby or whatever they were undergoing.”
While doing research on how to start her business, she began to understand just how expensive it is to start a food business and shifted her focus to creating a food business incubator – a launchpad for new food ventures.
Over the past six years, food business incubator Hope & Main has helped aspiring food entrepreneurs from a variety of means and backgrounds launch and scale their businesses by providing shared-use kitchens and equipment, technical and educational programs, and a community of peers and mentors. KK&P Senior Consultant Ben Kerrick recently spoke with Founder Lisa Raiola about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Hope & Main, how her member businesses are adapting, and her hopes for the food system.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis impact Hope & Main? And your member businesses?
In early March our members who are food trucks, caterers, even a lot of our CPG [consumer packaged goods] businesses, and are reliant on events and markets started saying ‘everything’s canceled, everything’s canceled.’ They were in a panic. And then the Rhode Island Governor issued the stay at home order and the foodservice channels just cratered. Our makers [resident food businesses] quickly lost their access to their customers and that’s when we quickly began helping them to move into new channels and to create some of those channels for them.
How has Hope & Main pivoted to respond to the needs of your businesses and your community in this crisis?
We first tried to really rally around local and tap into the idea that people are loyal to local. We started the hashtag #eatstrongRI and within that hashtag we were promoting all local food businesses, but particularly our members.
Then as people started to look for alternatives to going into a supermarket we helped our members to get into direct to consumer delivery channels. And a number of them have found that they have increased demand.
We started a pop-up experience, What’s Local Wednesday, where we invite people to preorder from a maker we’re featuring that night. It’s also become a grocery pickup site. It started out as six bags of groceries, the first week, and it was up to 60 bags last week.
We also started Nourish Our Neighbors. It’s a program that came out of our offer to be a distribution site for the breakfast and lunch meals the school district provides for families that are eligible through the National School Lunch Program.
When you’re coming face to face with food-insecure families, that really is a moment when you’re looking at the face of hunger. I saw those numbers doubling daily in the first week to 10 days and I also saw how limited the school district was in what they could produce particularly in the grab and go format. It might be calorie-dense food, but it’s not nutritiously dense food.
So I thought. ‘Okay. You know, I think we can do better.’ We organized a major fundraising effort within 10 days and raised $45,000 in a day. And our members who are either caterers or prepared food companies or food trucks, we’re paying to help produce meals. We quickly began serving about 950 meals a week for families, and 300 meals a week for the seniors.
I’m so grateful to be helpful.
Are there any specific examples of creative or innovative pivots your individual member businesses are doing?
So many. Burgundian, which makes Liege waffles, has a double-decker waffle bus. Normally, they go to different breweries and they do these great waffles with different sweet and savory toppings and pair them with beer and all kinds of fun. So they’ve made quarantine kits so you can have that great fun experience at home.
Another company, Basil and Bunny, has a food trailer and they were preparing to open in March. So they just opened up in our parking lot and had a drive-through with pre-orders.
We have a woman-run company, Little Maven that does heritage lemonades and she’s been doing popups. But what’s cool, is she made a banner that has a QR code on it. So if you walked by and you didn’t preorder, you can just take a picture of the QR code and that actually places an order.
Even the idea for evolving Nourish Our Neighbors into this “buy one, give one” community meal share concept – it actually came from one of our makers. Our team thought: that’s a brilliant idea. Let’s do the Toms Shoes model: buy a meal, give a meal. And we’ve been doing that for about five weeks now and every week we’ve sold out. It’s this virtuous cycle of goodness and sustainability, and the idea that everybody eats the same nutritious food. The idea of food equity is so important.
There’s that saying that a lot of people are referring to now – “never let a crisis go to waste.” What are your most optimistic hopes for how we might come out of this with a better food system?
I think that what has entered into our awareness even for people who have resources, is we’re experiencing what it feels like to see a bare shelf, and that makes a psychological imprint. I think more than ever before, we are understanding that we have to have local sustainable food systems that we can rely on. And that gives me a lot of hope for a better food future. I don’t want to go back to the old normal. There were lots of things about it that were not equitable, not sustainable. I think a lot of folks are having the same feeling.
Shayna [Cohen, KK&P Senior Consultant] and I are working with your team right now to develop a strategic plan for Hope & Main. What does it mean to be developing a strategic plan in the middle of a global crisis? Has the crisis made you think differently about the planning process?
Well, we’re certainly not waiting around for the future to fall on our heads. We have to be in almost a hyper planning mode and adopt the discipline of knowing how to build, test, learn and produce a minimal viable product. What I think KK&P has helped us to do is frame and prioritize both the issues and the opportunities where we can be in that cycle of building and testing and learning on these issues, so that we’re inviting the future into the present, and making changes in our business right now where we can quickly learn and pivot and move forward.
So there’s no better time than right now to be planning, and to have a partner in KK&P, who brings so much experience. It’s really refreshing to have those thought partners, and to have people pushing a strategic framing and really eliciting great ideas from our board. So I think the timing is perfect.