The Good Food Accelerator (GFA) has played a groundbreaking role in developing Chicago food business startups since FamilyFarmed founded it in 2014. Now the program is taking the next steps in its evolution with a new cohort of nine better-for-you businesses, an expanded effort to assist entrepreneurs in underserved Chicago communities, and new Managing Director Shelby Parchman.

This was all on display on February 7, when GFA took the spotlight at Naturally Chicago’s Friday Morning Mingle.

Jim Slama — CEO of FamilyFarmed and Naturally Chicago, and creator of the Good Food Accelerator — led off with background about the program’s purpose and origins.

“We want to support this community to grow,” Slama said. “We want to build the ecosystem, all elements of it, emerging brands, distributors, retailers, investors, service providers. And we really want to get more Good Food into everybody’s hands. That’s what this industry is all about: innovating, creating awesome new products, supporting people to get healthier. And I think we’re doing it.”

Slama explained that the decision to create the Accelerator was spurred by feedback, from business leaders and investors, that the businesses pitching at FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Financing & Innovation Conference (launched in 2009) had excellent products and ideas, but needed more polish. And the program has a strong success rate: Slama said that of the 43 companies that graduated in GFA’s first five cohorts, 36 are still in business, and many are thriving.

Slama then introduced Parchman, who had previously served as a consultant to the Accelerator program. “We started collaborating with was Shelby on our GFA Extension (GFAx) program, which is targeting entrepreneurs from underserved communities in the food space, to help them grow their business,” Slama said. Parchman then agreed to become managing director of the full program when that position became open in late 2019.

Parchman took the mike and explained that he was not always a “good foodie.” The holder of bachelor and master degrees in chemistry, Parchman said he started his professional life working with “Big Pharma” and “bad food” companies. “If you eat chicken and you see all that breast meat, I was one of the instrumental people in developing out chemicals that would get converted to hormones in the chicken’s body to help them grow larger breast meat,” Parchman said.

He added, to chuckles from the attendees, “At that point I said, ‘I really need to get a better job.'”

Shelby Parchman, Managing Director of the Good Food Accelerator, discusses the program at Naturally Chicago’s Friday Morning Mingle on February 7. All photos by Bob Benenson/Naturally Chicago.

After starting and selling businesses of his own, Parchman became an advisor and coach to other small businesses — mostly on Chicago’s minority-majority South and West sides, which brought him to the attention of the Good Food Accelerator. He focused last year on a GFAx pilot project, which will be expanded this year under his leadership.

Parchman cited benefits of working with Good Food entrepreneurs that include breaking some bad habits (such as drinking sugary soda pop) and becoming more adventurous in his food choices. “The beauty of this is I get to try a lot of different food brands and new food products that are coming out that are good for you, better for you,” he said, adding, “A lot of people would think that Good Food meant it would not taste good. And now I eat Good Food just because it’s actually just really good, tasty food.”

Helping businesses in underserved communities grow, and increasing access to Good Food for underrepresented populations, remains central to Parchman’s vision. Referring to FamilyFarmed’s longstanding vision statement, he said, “We’re trying to look at Good Food, and I put in all caps, ON EVERY TABLE. Not just on the tables of people who can afford Whole Foods, but the people who are living in communities and they need access to better foods, whether it’s through restaurants or whether it’s through retail establishments.”

This mission, though, will not take away from the Accelerator’s core six-month intensive program. The 6th cohort, which will get under way on February 25, will receive classroom instruction, industry-leading mentorship, networking opportunities, access to investors, and the bonding experience that comes with the collaboration with other entrepreneurs whose businesses are at a similar stage of development.

The Mingle was attended by several members of the new cohort, who stepped up to briefly discuss their businesses:

Leah Bostrom, Chia Leah: “We’re a women-owned business out of Wilmette, Illinois. I’m a certified health coach and so our products are health coach-created. Every ingredient promotes wellness, grab-and-go snacks, healthy upgrades… We’re trying to fuel a healthy lifestyle through these snacks. If somebody swaps in one of these products to their diet, they’re going to have better health overall, and that’s really so important to me.”

Annie Sharma, Get Wild: “We believe that snacking should be guilt-free, and actually good for you. Our snacks are simply popped water lily seeds. They’re not fried. They’re not full of GMOs, they’re not full of gluten, and they are delicious. And that’s what’s most important, because when you’re fueled by plant protein and antioxidants, you can make your mark on the world, and when you feel good, you can do good.”

Glen Kohn, Prevail Jerky (joined by Ashley Kohn, his business partner and wife): “We’re a local artisan beef jerky product… I have my wife Ashley here, who is really the reason why this product became. She was diagnosed with celiac [disease] back in 2004, and we felt that allergy-free products on the shelf back then were just very limited and pretty much unpalatable. So we as a family adopted a Paleo lifestyle and learned to make products from scratch, whether it be baked goods or meat products… Flavor and texture shouldn’t have to be sacrificed in order to eat. And that’s what the GFA and this whole cohort is about, showing that you can have good, clean products and they can taste delicious.”

Mary Beth Mulholland, Pasta Pappone: “We make flavored pasta. We use all natural ingredients and very traditional techniques. We’ve got bronze dies in our machines and we slow hang-dry our noodles. It really means that each each bite is bursting with very unique flavor, but it’s still really good for you, really wholesome, and you usually don’t have to add too much to it except your proteins or veggies, and some olive oil or butter.”

Sasha Earle, Tomato Bliss: “We grow heirloom tomatoes, work with other farmers in southwest Michigan to preserve heirloom tomatoes so they can be enjoyed all year round. Our products are all preservative-free, no added sugars, low sodium. Heirloom tomatoes really have the most flavor and we grow hundreds of varieties and combine them together… We’ve got soup and salsa and roasted tomatoes and always thinking of new things that we can do… We are a small women-owned business.”

Linda Yeh-Ostrinsky, Soup Explorers (joined by C0-Founder/Partner Debarshi Sengupta): “We are about connecting people to the world through a humble bowl of soup. We are producing a refrigerated soup kit that is individually packaged and cold pasteurized to lock in nutrients and extend shelf life. We are meant to be globally inspired and locally crafted in partnership with local restaurants.”

Parchman gave shoutouts to the three 6th cohort businesses that were unable to attend: Nature’s Nosh, maker of all-natural,  CBD-infused fruit and nut bites; Sprout Living, which produces organic and plant-based protein powders, meal replacements and functional drink mixes; and Top Note Mixers, which makes premium and award winning craft beverage mixers for cocktails and mocktails. Parchman noted that he thought there was something familiar about Top Note when they applied for this Accelerator cohort, and then he realized he was already using their ginger beer in the Moscow Mules he makes at home.

NaturallyChicago.org will be highlighting the 6th cohort and GFAx in a series of upcoming articles.

The next Naturally Chicago Friday Morning Mingle will be held on February 24, 8:30-10 a.m., at LYFE Kitchen, 413 N. Clark in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Rakesh Amin, the guest speaker, is a partner in the law firm Amin Talati Wasserman and is the leading expert on FDA law. Admission, coffee and the best networking in Chicago are always free.