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​Startup competition a "Launch Pad" for culinary entrepreneurs

What was once a 10,000 square-ft. mid-century warehouse in Washington, D.C. has been converted to a "Mess Hall" – a professionally equipped playground for budding chefs
Startup competition a "Launch Pad" for culinary entrepreneurs 03:26

Elizabeth Bennett felt her first entrepreneurial impulse at the age of sixteen.

"Every day in America we waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl stadium which is a 90,000 seat stadium and, meanwhile, 1 in 6 Americans are going hungry. And I just really think there is something horribly wrong with that and I wanted to do something about it."

A decade later, and you're listening to Bennett's elevator pitch for her two-week-old company called Fruitcycle.

"So I had an idea to start Fruitcycle. A social enterprise that will turn food otherwise going to waste into healthy tasty snacks that are shelf stable and will meanwhile, also be providing jobs to women who have been incarcerated homeless, or otherwise disadvantaged and might not have these opportunities," Bennett told CBS News.

The catalyst for Bennett's leap of faith? She was named a finalist in a startup competition called the Launch Pad by a food incubator - a kind of business laboratory for culinary entrepreneurs -- aptly named "Mess Hall."

Bennett is one of four finalists that Mess Hall founder Al Goldberg chose out of thousands of pages of prospective business plans.

"Al from Mess Hall called us last Monday and I quit my job on Tuesday," Bennett said.

Two other finalists had equally inventive business plans -- Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. serves up ambrosial Southern biscuit sandwiches and Lulu's Ice Cream makes liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Goldberg was inspired to help companies like theirs after identifying a solution to the biggest barrier of entry to D.C.'s burgeoning food scene: needing a space to cook.

"By law in D.C. everyone has to operate out of a commercial kitchen. So I myself was trying to open up a catering company - I couldn't get it off the ground," Goldberg explained. "The lease terms were too long, start-up costs prohibitive. And I started to think, well what if we sort of create this shared concept where we could have people come in and use kitchens on a shared basis to defuse the cost. And it just sort of morphed into this whole food community. Because it doesn't just start and stop with space."

The term "food community" - a core refrain of Goldberg's concept -- sits tidily under the Mess Hall logo painted on Mess Hall's sprawling brick expanse in Northeast D.C.

What was once a 10,000-square-foot mid-century warehouse has been converted to a professionally equipped playground for budding chefs. Complete with dehydrators, walk-in freezers, and hood ventilation in each private kitchen, Goldberg's attention to detail exhibits a passion for a project that has not wavered after four years of planning and construction.

Saturday marks the finale of the Mess Hall competition. The four finalists will pitch against each other for an entrepreneurs dream come true: free membership to Mess Hall for six months and a $500,000 investment opportunity from EquityEats, a crowd-funding platform that's like a Kickstarter for foodies.

In the mad dash to prepare for Saturday, the finalists are busy polishing their pitches and preparing food samples to pass out to a crowd that will include Whole Foods executives and other prospective business partners. Bennett herself gleaned 170 pounds of apples from an orchard in Virginia in order to hand out dehydrated cinnamon apple chips.

As the last finalist to launch her company, she is also working on catching up on business basics, "I'm getting the website built before the finale, I'm trying to increase my social media - I'm basically trying to do anything I can before I try to make the pitch I give to be as successful as it can be."

Goldberg anticipates that all four finalists will move into the space after the competition in order to continue growing their business.

"I would love to see something happen where we get some Fruitcycle apples incorporated into Lulu's Ice Cream and then that dessert becomes the desert of choice at a Mason Dixie restaurant one day," Goldberg described to CBS News, "That'd be like the dream, you know."

The quietly exuberant Goldberg has another dream fast approaching fulfillment: Saturday's competition also marks Mess Hall's grand opening.

"I'm elated. This project has been going on for four years. There have been so many ups and downs and twists and turns. To see it actually coming to a reality. It's really a dream come true."

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