- Philadelphia is a hub for food innovation with the new Philly Startup Leader accelerator amplifying the number of people in the space.
- Black and Mobile is amplifying Black-owned restaurants through its delivery service platform that has expanded to four cities in addition to Philadelphia.
- Philly-founded Grovara has connected natural and organic brands to international realtors in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Black founders are breaking into food tech for a new wave of innovation with Philadelphia as a hub.
Black culinary innovators have brought us the likes of the ice cream scooper, fruit juicer, keg tapper and many more with the foundation of the American food and beverage industry coming from the “brawn and brilliance” of Black Americans, culinary historian and WURD Radio host Tonya Hopkins a.k.a The Food Griot, told The Plug.
“That was their role, problem solving,” she said.
In Philadelphia, Black women selling pepper pot soup were the pioneers of the practice of fast food vending, Hopkins said.
“They sang songs about their pepper pot being nice and hot,” she said, noting that the Philadelphia Pepper Pot recipe, which came from West Africa and the Caribbean, was one of neighboring Campbell Soup Company’s earliest products.
Now, looking at the intersection of the culinary industry and technology, Hopkins said it is a natural extension of innovation for Black founders to become pioneers in the food tech sector.
Black and Mobile
While working as a driver for food service apps like Postmates and Caviar, David Cabello, the co-founder of Black and Mobile, noticed that he had trouble identifying Black-owned restaurants in Philadelphia. His solution: start a Black-owned delivery service that exclusively promotes Black-owned restaurants on its platform.
The startup launched in 2019 and is now in Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York, in addition to Philadelphia.
Black and Mobile is working with Pepsi through the Dig In initiative, a $50 million commitment to Black restaurateurs.
“We’ve formed a partnership to help Pepsi locate Black restaurants and get them signed up to this program,” Cabello told The Plug. Black and Mobile has over 100 restaurants on its platform.
The startup has primarily been bootstrapped and, in addition to a loan from Shopify, received a grant of $25,000 from Daymond John, an investor on Shark Tank. Before seeking venture capital funding, Black and Mobile is planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign.
VC funding for the food tech industry experienced a decline in Q2 2022, according to a Pitchbook report; still, valuations and deal sizes continue to surge with a total of $5.6 billion in funding across 275 deals. The largest deal of the quarter was Philadelphia-headquartered Gopuff’s $1.5 billion VC deal. Since then, the company has laid off 10 percent of its workforce.
“We [want] to give back to the Black community first and give them an opportunity to invest,” Cabello said. “We want to be able to educate people and then also let them reap the benefits because the people that are supporting us are the restaurant owners, the drivers, the customers, the people that follow us.”
“Getting my community where it needs to be is number one,” he added.
Another Black founder to find success from a food tech platform is Abu Kamara. He is the co-founder of Philadelphia-based Grovara, a B2B marketplace that connects natural and organic brands with international retailers.
Many U.S. wellness brands do not export their products, so that’s where Grovara comes in. Its technology platform is built to manage the export lifecycle connecting brands like GT’s Living Foods, Wholesome Sweeteners and Honey Stinger with global retailers like Walmart Mexico, Whole Foods U.K. and Costco Taiwan.
The company has increased its number of international buyers sixfold since launching in 2020, opening offices in Mexico and Dubai this year. Grovara also made its first sale to mainland China and plans to continue its operations in Latin America and the Middle East.
“Brands and buyers are increasingly seeing the value of our platform to manage and grow their exports and imports channels, because of the easy and transparent experience, backed by a team that’s thought-leaders in the industry,” Kamara said in a press release.
Grovara’s rapid growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. The company won “Best Emerging Technology Company” at the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies Awards in May and was selected by CB Insights for its Retail Tech 100 ranking, which showcases B2B retail tech companies.
The natural and organic food and beverage market and B2B e-commerce are likewise growing. In 2021, the global organic food market was valued at approximately $227.1 billion with an anticipated growth to $437.4 billion in 2026, according to Statista.
Grovara has raised $5.8 million in funds to date.
Philly accelerator supporting new food tech founders
Philadelphia has long been known for food innovation and as a launchpad for global brands, Beth Lawrence, Philly Startup Leaders (PSL) director of programs and events, told The Plug. Coupled with the numerous food innovators in PSL’s ecosystems, this was the impetus for the organization’s new food innovation accelerator launching this month.
The program is being held in collaboration with Food Collective, which connects creators and local businesses and is a PSL accelerator alum itself. Applicants have ranged from founders with food and tech backgrounds to people in the hospitality and cannabis industry.
“People who have been working in the industry in whatever capacity are the people typically able to identify the problems that need solutions,” Lawrence said.