Growing A Food Startup With Incubators


Startups love bringing new products to market, but building a business out of an idea is no easy feat. Swapples Founder and CEO Rebecca Peress explains how incubators can help a business take off – and bring products into brick-and-mortar stores.

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Food startups can set themselves apart from the pack by focusing on niche markets. One strategy is to make traditional foods accessible to those with special dietary needs or allergies. Breakfast foods such as waffles, for example, contain products such as eggs and wheat that are off limits for those who are vegan or have a sensitivity to gluten. But food startups are rolling out products that substitute those ingredients for plant-based foods.

Swapples, for example, makes a plant-based waffle that is vegan and made without gluten or grains. The food was the brainchild of Rebecca Peress, who was eating foods such as yogurt, granola and whole wheat bread. But, even then, her diet wasn’t completely healthy from a sugar perspective, “I was eating close to 40 grams of added sugar a day,” Swapples Founder and CEO Rebecca Peress told in an interview. Peress decided to eliminate grains from her diet and was cooking from scratch but “was really missing having a bready vessel,” Peress said. What, for example, could she use to make a sandwich with avocado?

Peress started developing recipes with the yuca root for a waffle. She brought them into an office and the idea caught on: Her coworkers actually started buying them from her. The product essentially swaps out grain, eggs and soy for fruits and vegetables such as the yuca root. The products are “toaster ready” like traditional pre-made waffles, but Peress said most of her customers opt to pair her products with other foods. Her sweet waffles tend to go with nut butters, yogurt or fruit, while her other varieties go with many other foods. (They can be cut up and used as croutons, for example.)

The idea behind the product is to cater to consumers with not one dietary restriction but multiple restrictions. Some products, for example, might be gluten free but not vegan. In other cases, products might be vegan but contain soy — which could present a problem for consumers who are vegan but allergic to soy. Overall, the product comes at a time where consumers are paying more attention to the foods that they eat. “We live in a world now where people are way more in tune with their bodies and what makes them feel good,” Peress said. At the same time, diets are individual. While Peress said that there’s a perfect diet for everybody, there is no perfect diet for everybody.

Getting Started

It’s not easy to develop a recipe for scratch – or build a food startup from the ground up. But companies such as Swapples sometimes use kitchen and incubator space. (Swapples, for example, works with Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C.) While Peress said the industry can be difficult, cities that have these organizations are transformative. Food producers that are just starting up have to find space or go to a copacker, but those options can make it difficult for producers stay local and start small. Yet incubators can help producers do that, and cities that have them can make all the difference. “The cities with the incubators and accelerators and all that are really instrumental in growing a business like this,” Peress said.

Without incubators, Peress said it would be hard to get in stores – and grow. But these types of programs help companies such as Swapples launch and have the ability to go out on their own.  And there’s a sense of camaraderie within them. “You gain access to a community of other food entrepreneurs going through the same thing,” Peress said.

The Road Ahead

Swapples is currently in Whole Foods Market within the mid-Atlantic region and a few markets in the New York area but it is considering expanding to other areas. Going forward, Peress is aiming to take Swapples nationwide – and cross border. In doing so, she would like to gain the brand recognition that companies such as Eggo enjoy.

In terms of future sales, she also sees other distribution channels such as food service on café menus and eCommerce channels. More holistically, Peress has another goal: “I want to transform the way people eat fruits and veggies and the way they think about breakfast,” Peress said. And, with her expansion, she may just take over the country – one Swapple at a time.