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In its second iteration, Danielle Vogel’s AccelerateHERdc business pitch competition awarded $6,000 to a woman-owned food business tackling sustainability with a retail-ready product. Vogel, the founder of Glen’s Garden Market, started the competition last year to “definitively mark our commitment to women in the sustainable food space.”
Saturday’s competition was open to women-owned food businesses in the Chesapeake region, and participants needed to specify how their products addressed environmental sustainability. A team of judges included marketing professionals and women entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. The prize package also comes with professional mentorship and consulting sessions.
This year, judges narrowed a field of about 60 applicants down to four finalists after a preliminary judging and interview round. Then the founders of Sip City, Eat Chic Chocolates, Wild Willett Foods, and Nomad Dumplings set up tasting stations at Glen’s sixth birthday party and Earth Day celebration where they also made five-minute pitches to the crowd. Following a private deliberation session, the judges awarded Eat Chic Chocolates the prize package. Vogel contributed $5,000 of the prize money and Chobani Incubator kicked in another $1,000.
At last year’s celebration, microgreens farm Little Wild Things took home a $10,000 check and has worked with Vogel since on strategic consulting decisions. “It truly felt that we were choosing the next generation of ourselves, and it was exciting, it was motivating,” Vogel says. “And so we decided it had to become an annual tradition.”
Learn more about the finalists:
Winner: Eat Chic Chocolates
Lotta Andonian founded Eat Chic Chocolates while she was living abroad in England, where peanut butter is not very popular and peanut butter cups are difficult to find. Andonian started making her own vegan, gluten-free peanut butter cups for her friends, but they quickly became so popular that she quit her fashion marketing job to take orders full time in 2015, eventually landing Eat Chic Chocolates in stores like Selfridges.
Andonian later moved to Brooklyn, where her chocolates, made from fair trade, organic, sustainably sourced ingredients, are now produced and sold. Eat Chic Chocolates features more than a dozen flavors with different nut butters including “Pink Chocolate Cherry-Chai Almond Butter Cups,” “Mocha Hazelnut Butter Cups,” and its signature “Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups with Maldon Sea Salt.”
Andonian plans to put the prize money toward hiring another woman on staff, and she hopes to grow her business to reach new markets, including D.C. “It hasn’t fully set in yet, but this money really means a lot,” Andonian says.
Taste-Test Winner: Wild Willett Food
Saturday’s celebration marked the launch of Catherine Nguyen’s business Wild Willett Food, which is now sold online and at Glen’s. The company produces all-natural beef jerky that incorporates fruit. Nguyen started Wild Willett Food to satisfy a need to feed her kids snacks that are low-sugar, high-protein, and tasty enough for them to actually eat.
“When I went to my mother and said, ‘I need to take a leave of absence to focus on my three young kids,’ my Vietnamese immigrant mother cried,” Nguyen shared during her pitch. She previously practiced law. “You can imagine her reaction this past fall when I told her … ‘I’m going to sell beef jerky instead.’”
To address sustainability, Nguyen hopes to make her packaging recyclable. And, by supplementing the beef volume with fruit, the jerky also requires less energy to produce than similar products. She thinks she’s found a solution for snackers who want to be thoughtful about their meat intake without cutting it altogether.
Finalist: Nomad Dumplings
Back for her second year as an AccelerateHERdc finalist, Karen Hoefener of Nomad Dumplings says that in the last year, her company has expanded from selling in eight grocery stores to more than 30 stores in five states. She founded the business after spending time in China and learning how to cook dumplings. She wanted to fill a need for healthy, vegan, colorful, and lower-sodium dumplings in the freezer aisle of stores. Hoefener has found a way to begin making the dumpling packaging recyclable, and wants to purchase a steamer that will shave production time and consume less energy and water.
Finalist: Sip City
After battling digestive issues and experimenting with different gut-healthy drinks, Nikki Blank discovered switchel and started making it through her company Sip City. It launched at Glen’s in January 2018. Switchel is an apple cider vinegar-based drink with ginger, lemon, honey, and water. It can help replenish electrolytes and boost hydration, according to Blank.
“When I moved down to D.C., I realized that the drinking culture here was unlike anything I had ever seen,” Blank said. “This product I had been making in my kitchen forever was actually a super good fit for the type of ‘work hard, play hard’ environment here.”
Sip City will be rebranding this June to the name Sunōmi Switchel. With the rebrand will come a transition to recycled aluminum cans to offset the company’s carbon footprint. The switchel ingredients are also sourced locally and Blank has been able to eliminate food waste.