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Industry Pros Share Strategies Surrounding the Future of Food

Charlie Awards panelists (left to right) Dennis Monroe, restaurateur Tim Niver, Susan Moores of Roots for the Home Team, Foodee’s Zach Danekas and Ryan Furness of NearestYou.com talk innovations in the food industry.

It was a conversation about innovation and responding to the marketplace, so it was fitting that the panelists gathered September 13 in St. Paul jumped as quickly from one topic to another like diners to the next hot restaurant.

“It’s all about new ideas,” said Dennis Monroe, a restaurant investor, chairman of Monroe Moxness Berg law firm and moderator of the evening’s Charlie Awards hot topics discussion. 

At Spark-Y in Minneapolis, Zach Robinson is working on a “win-win for students and restaurants” by training Twin Cities youth to be leaders, enjoy science hands-on and supply schools and local eateries with student-grown produce from its vertical hydroponic garden and aquaponics systems. Water is recycled through the two tiers of plant beds; the lower level is stocked with Koi fish, whose contribution to the growing process is natural fertilizer. At some point the Koi will be replaced by tilapia, which can be sold to restaurants as well. 

“There’s a ton of potential with aquaponics to feed people into the future,” said Robinson, who sees food growth eventually being incorporated in the basic operation of any business.

Tim Niver, meanwhile, is “in the midst of trying to figure out how to disrupt a frozen pizza industry that’s a more than $2 billion industry” with his newest restaurant, Mucci’s Italian. Frozen pizzas, fresh pasta and the restaurant’s sauces and meatballs are part of the Mucci’s at Home line, just one of four profit centers within his third St. Paul restaurant (Niver also co-owns Strip Club Meat and Fish and Saint Dinette).

“We decided Italian food gives you the opportunity to have a frozen segment, have takeout and have a restaurant,” he said of the concept that also includes doughnuts on the weekends. (Turn to page 26 for this month’s Buy the Numbers column, where Monroe takes a closer look at the Mucci’s business plan.)

The conversation also hit on local sourcing—“You have to make the conscientious decision to buy the best product you can, but you also have to run a business,” said Niver—and third-party delivery services. Zach Danekas, city manager of corporate restaurant delivery service Foodee, said the model is different because instead of flooding a restaurant’s kitchen with regular customer delivery orders during what are typically already busy lunch and dinner hours, Foodee connects restaurants with large, off-peak catering orders and handles delivery to downtown offices.

One more Charlies event is coming up (see sidebar) before the awards ceremony November 13, where recognition will include Lifetime Achievement, Community Hero, and “Outstanding” awards for chef, emerging chef, service, restaurateur, restaurant, interior design, pastry chef, local craft brew, beverage program, food truck, and bartender. 

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