Dominique Castanheira, Contributing Photographer

The New Haven-based Food Business Accelerator program held its annual Pitch Day on April 1 — showcasing the business ideas of food entrepreneurs to community members and potential investors.

Pitch Day marked the culmination of a 12-week training program for restaurant entrepreneurs, created through a partnership between CitySeed, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide local food to New Haven residents, and Collab New Haven, which serves Connecticut entrepreneurs. The FBA program helps early-stage food entrepreneurs build their businesses. It is open to all Connecticut residents, though the program recruits heavily in New Haven. FBA received a record level of applications for the 2021 cohort. The accepted 2021 FBA ventures include catering, food product lines and food truck businesses.

“During a time like COVID I think Pitch Day is a moment of hope for the community,” said Caroline Tanbee Smith, co-director of Collab. “It’s an event that shows the resilience and the creativity of residents in Connecticut who are audacious enough to try to start something that makes an impact on the community that they know and love.”

Smith said that Pitch Day is a confidence-building moment for the entrepreneurs, many of whom have never presented their business before. She added that she believes that the event plays an active role in building a culture of entrepreneurship in New Haven.

Over 175 people registered to attend this year’s virtual Pitch Day webinar, which featured the program’s 10 ventures. Two of the ventures featured Spanish language-predominant owners and thus presented through interpreters in Spanish. Local entrepreneurs, including those of Je T’aime Cupcakes and Cocktails, which serves both alcoholic and nonalcoholic cupcakes, and EatUp LLC, which promises Italian-inspired soul food, made their pitch to those in attendance.

For the entrepreneurs, presenting their businesses came after months of preparation. Since January, teams have attended workshops, participated in individualized coaching sessions with members of the Collab team and utilized free commercial kitchen space to build their business plans. The FBA program also covered the costs for entrepreneurs to take a ServSafe safety training and certificate program, which is required to run a food business. Through its free offerings, the FBA program seeks to remove barriers to food entrepreneurship.

“[FBA] is a great opportunity to come together, find young entrepreneurs, and try to help connect them with resources so they can get started,” said Steve Fontana, New Haven’s deputy director of economic development.

As part of the program, the FBA program matched every venture with a mentor. Poreyah Benton, owner of the vegan food truck Vegan Ahava, launched her truck through the Food Business Accelerator program in 2018-2019. Benton told the News she worked closely with her mentors, owners of mobile coffee shop The Jitter Bus.

Despite the pandemic, the FBA program has seen interest in food entrepreneurship rise — applications for the 2021 cohort were higher than ever before, according to executive director of CitySeed Cortney Renton. Renton attributed this rise in interest to the slow pandemic-era economy, which has specifically reduced jobs for people of color, low-income residents and women — communities she said the group was designed to support.

Smith agreed. “Given a scarcity of jobs, entrepreneurship is potentially a really exciting pathway because it gives individuals the freedom to try to start something,” she said.

Renton said that a strong sense of community has formed among this year’s cohort, a development she deemed important in an industry that could otherwise be isolating. She pointed to the inter-cohort collaboration that has already sprung up, such as the businesses supporting one another on social media.

As the ventures finish the FBA program, they remember what brought them to entrepreneurship in the first place.

I love how food brings people together, makes people smile and changes communities,” Brian Burkett Thompson, co-owner of EatUp, said during the Pitch Day webinar.

The Food Business Accelerator receives support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce and Yale Community for New Haven Fund.

Dominique Castanheira | dominique.castanheira@yale.edu