Written by Amanda Maher
Food has been described as a universal language—a tried and true way of bringing together people from diverse backgrounds.
It’s a much less romantic sentiment, but food is also a tried and true way to grow local economies. And the food cluster is as diverse as those who depend on these companies’ products.
One needs to look no further than the 2015 Inner City 100 for evidence. Eight companies from the food and beverage cluster landed on the list of the fastest-growing inner city businesses in America. From catering to making nut butters, these companies all have a proven track record for creating jobs in some of the country’s most distressed communities.
What else do these companies have in common?
To start, it’s not just the number of people they employ, but who they employ: These companies hire upwards of 50 percent of their workforce from the local neighborhood. This makes sense; roughly 60 percent of workers in the food industry nationally have a high school diploma or less, making food cluster jobs uniquely accessible. And these Inner City 100 winners go to great lengths to keep their employees happy. Seventy-five percent offer their employees professional development or business skills training.
Another trend among this year’s food cluster winners is a commitment to healthy and sustainable products. Gourmet Gorilla (23 on the Inner City 100 list), for instance, was founded based on the premise that children in Chicago’s lowest-income school districts should benefit from healthy meals. Today, the staff of 64 provides more than 90 K-12 schools with 10,000 meals each day. The meals are made in consultation and with the support of local farmers, urban agriculturists, dieticians and organic food manufacturers. Edibles Rex (91) uses a similar strategy to provide nutritional, high-quality meals to low-income schoolchildren in Detroit. Premier Organics (49), purveyor of healthy nut butters, sources its produce from small, organic farmers as a means of reducing the company’s environmental impact. The Oakland-based company teams up with farmers who have pledged to treat and compensate employees fairly, and who use sustainable practices so as not to damage the environment. As such, most of the farms it works with are family-run. Florida-based gourmet bakery Sweet Endings (90) uses all-natural ingredients, with a focus on fresh, local food.
The companies honored on this year’s Inner City 100 list show that success is often a family affair. Andrew Goldin teamed up with his brother David to launch Fresh Fanatic (60), a local grocery store and café located on the ground floor of the Brooklyn apartment building where David still lives. A mother-son duo, Patsy Dubret and Nick Selby, have turned Uncorked (Frankonia Fine Wines, 47) into one of New Orleans’ fastest-growing wine, spirits and beer distributors. And as the name suggests, it was three brothers who founded Three Brothers Bakery (45). After surviving the Holocaust, the brothers moved to Texas and launched the business—a business that has since been passed on to one of the founders’ sons, Bobby Jucker. Today Bobby and his wife, Janice, use modern technology to promote a business still rich in family tradition.
Across the board, these companies have found ways to engage in their local communities. Some sponsor little league teams, others offer pro-bono goods and services. Most encourage their employees to volunteer for causes important to them, while some firms team up with charitable organizations directly. Brooklyn-based Tumbador Chocolate (72) is one such example. The private-label confectioner works with groups like STRIVE, Goodwill and The Fortune Society to provide employment opportunities to local residents who were formerly incarcerated, are homeless or are victims of domestic violence.
Despite a number of overarching similarities, this year’s Inner City 100 winners are as diverse as the goods and services they produce. The companies range in size and revenue, and are scattered across the U.S. Each of the companies has found its place within an equally broad and diverse food and beverage cluster, one that has allowed for business success while providing a variety of employment opportunities for inner city residents.