Blog

January 2, 2018
Boston Emerges as a Hub for Disruptive Food and Beverage Brands and Tech Companies

The startup food and beverage sectors are hot. With, according to CB Insights, 1,300 deals - valued at nearly $6B - involving F&B companies since 2012. As consumers look for greater convenience and healthier options, and brands, retailers, and producers look to boost margins and reach new markets, a range of companies have stepped up to change the rules and drive innovation.

Many of these disruptors are based in and around Boston and run the gamut from new takes on snack food and natural beverages to packaging, delivery, and restaurant concepts, apps for merchandising and retail sales, and even new approaches to high-tech agriculture.

Like any successful startup hub, the Boston F&B scene has a growing and diverse community of talent, mentors, well-connected startups, supporting software and services firms, and peer communities; plus a few anchor companies like Boston Beer Company, Dunkin’ Brands, and Ocean Spray.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the key players I’ve been tracking and gotten to know as I navigate the local food and beverage cluster forming around downtown Boston. Know others that should be on my radar? Feel free to shoot me a note!

Buzzy brands

Walk through a local Whole Foods Market or CVS and you’re likely to spot a number of products created right here in Boston. From natural food brands like Biena Foods and their chickpea snacks (gotta love their BBQ flavor) to hometown heroes Grillo’s Pickles, and Tom Brady’s favorite indulgence from Unreal Brands, there are a growing number of locally born treats available in your local supermarket.

Of course, those of us who are fans of craft beer know that there’s no shortage of awesome local breweries as well (BeerAdvocate has a handy, up-to-date beer guide I recommend). But fewer folks know that some of the fastest-growing beverage companies are also in the neighborhood, including Spindrift and Downeast Cider House, both of which made Repsly’s recent Top 100 Buzziest Brands list.

The delivery guys

So how do you get these healthy snacks to your workplace or kid’s school or a late night meal (or adult beverage) to your apartment? A number of Boston firms are hard at work making it possible, even as some early food delivery app firms based in town (like Chef Nightly and Foodler, now GrubHub) have exited the game.

Of course, one of the most prominent is online booze marketplace and mobile app Drizly, which continues to rake in both fans and funding (about $35M so far). On the corporate side, Leanbox is reinventing the vending machine with its smart food and beverage kiosks for workplaces, while Bevi is doing the same for water coolers.

Meanwhile, Smart Lunches is tackling the age-old question parents dread: “What’s in my lunch?”, with a clever online ordering app and delivery network to get your kiddos their healthy or allergy-smart meal at school or camp.

The app providers

As brand ambassadors, merchants and their consumers embrace mobile devices, the number of apps available to help manage field teams, merchandise products, and create better in-store experiences has taken off as well. Beyond being a hub for food delivery app development, Boston is also home to a number of SaaS shops, agencies, and investors focused on solutions for food and beverage brands, retailers, and restaurants.

Repsly moved to Boston three years ago to tap into this very ecosystem, and today offers a mobile CRM for field sales and merchandising teams in 70 countries. Other SaaS providers in town include BevSpot, which offers a variety of online tools for managing bar inventory, ordering and sales, Drync, which provides a slick white label app for liquor retailers, and LevelUp (the old SCVNGR), a mobile payments app and customer engagement platform that has raised over $100M so far.

At the same time, several local firms are helping establishments operate and deliver unique, memorable experiences to guests. These include Toast, which offers a mobile POS system for restaurants, bars, and clubs and has raked in nearly $134M in funding to-date, Providence-based Upserve, an end-to-end “Restaurant Management Platform,” and the Moseley Group in Franklin which has been an innovator in applying design thinking and experiential branding to the food biz for over 25 years.

The rocket scientists

While the locally sourced consumer brands and services above are hard to miss, a few other Boston-area firms are working behind the scenes to create next-gen food tech and devices that are changing the way we eat, drink, and produce food. Several are looking to harness the power of AI and machine learning to solve some BIG problems, such as ag-tech heavyweights Cibo Technologies with its custom seeds designed using machine learning, and local unicorn Indigo, which is using machine learning and plant microbes to boost crop yields and farmer productivity.

Of course one of the first ag-tech pioneers was Boston-based Freight Farms, with its wired up containers for go-anywhere farming. Up the road in Manchester NH, Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research & Development may be better known for its futuristic medical devices, but was also the brains behind Coke’s Freestyle soda machine. Meanwhile, if you are looking to create your own new food product, the folks at Chew can help you get started in their food innovation lab right in downtown Boston.

The connectors

Scaling the sparks of innovation requires a supportive community of mentors, incubators, and funding sources. Boston has this in super-sized portions with a number of local food and beverage focused investment firms, law practices, shared workspaces, and media companies like Watertown-based BevNET.

For funding and deal-making, Boston founders are lucky to have a number of options, such as  Cambridge’s Fresh Source Capital, which is focused on sustainable food and agriculture, and Sherbrooke Capital, a VC firm investing in health and wellness from its office in Wellesley. Plus Nutter’s Food & Beverage Practice hosts an excellent Founder Roundtable each fall.

For emerging brands, Branchfood provides networking programs and office space, while the Food Loft also provides coworking space and investment for food and food tech startups.

So whether you are new to the game and looking to test market a new product idea, an established growth brand looking to reach new markets by scaling your field team, or a techie looking to break into the F&B business, there’s likely just what you need right here in Boston.


Allen Bonde is vice president of marketing at mobile CRM provider RepslyYou can follow him at @abonde.

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