These forward-thinkers may have youth on their side, but they also have a bigger picture in mind that has propelled their companies to success by shaping how we view and consume specialty foods.

By Nicole Potenza Denis

Jennie Ripps & Maria Littlefield, founder and partner/CEO, respectively

Ages: 33 and 26

Company: Owl's Brew, an all-natural, fresh-brewed, micro-batched and -bottled tea crafted for the home mixologist

How they’re changing specialty food: Being a part of a bigger trend of “conscious” foods and beverages thathave a focus on good, clean ingredients.

After spending years creating specialty cocktails made with tea for events that ranged from movie premieres to charity dinners, Maria Littlefield and Jennie Ripps launched Owl’s Brew in 2013, creating a line of whole spiced teas not from concentrate. Intended to be paired with spirits (or as the company puts it, "2 Parts Brew to One Part Booze") as well as with beer and wine, Owl’s Brew has created a line of cocktail mixers showcasing teas with a twist. Brewed with purified water and all-natural agave, the three varieties—Darjeeling, English Breakfast, and spicy black tea—help cut cocktail calories by a third compared with other traditional mixers, the company notes. Owl’s Brew recently launched 8-ounce versions of its 32-ounce bottles, ideal for hotel minibars.

Considered revisionists in the mixer category, Ripps and Littlefield say moving forward they expect to see more premium mixers. “Tea is also a major trend,” they write. “We expect that we will continue to see more beverages—including mixers—using both herbals and tea.”

Tyler Gage & Dan MacCombie, co-founders and co-CEOs

Ages: 28 and 28

Company: Runa, a social enterprise that makes clean, organic energy tea beverages brewed with the guayusa “super leaf” and improves the livelihoods of Amazonian farming families through its supply chain

How they’re changing specialty food: Focusing foremost on creating a social enterprise that benefits consumers, producers, and the environment.

Inspired by the desire to support sustainable livelihoods for the indigenous Kichwa communities of Ecuador and Peru, MacCombie and Gage started Runa just over five years ago, fresh out of college. The beverages’ unifying ingredient is guayusa, an antioxidant-packed Amazonian tree leaf that contains caffeine and theobromine, an energizing compound found also in dark chocolate. Incorporating the native peoples’ own tradition of brewing and drinking the ceremonial tea and bringing it to an international audience—that increasingly craves a natural energy boost—the business has employed and empowered more than 2,000 farming families through the production and sale of guayusa teas and energy drinks. Earlier this year, Gage won the Specialty Food Association’s Leadership Award for his efforts in citizenship. Learn more about Tyler Gage and Runa here. http://www.specialtyfood.com/leadershipawards/

Elyse Oleksak & Nick Oleksak, owners

Ages: 28 and 29

Company: Bantam Bagels, a new bakery that offers bite-size bagel balls called Bantams, which are filled instead of topped 

How they’re changing specialty food: Pioneering new takes on classic foods, and encouraging the conscious consumer to enjoy small indulgences.

This enterprising New York couple went from Wall Street to a West Village kitchen, where they became bagel shop owners last fall, but not selling everyday bagels. Citing a lack of innovation, and that most bagel shops are simply trying to create the best classic bagel, the duo writes: “Our mission is to provide a fabulous New York City bagel in a new and exciting way.” What the doughnut hole is to doughnuts, the mini bagel morsels they’ve created, called Bantams, are baked on-site every day in creative varieties such as Hot Pretzel (a pretzel bagel topped with sea salt and filled with Dijon mustard and sharp cheddar cream cheese and The Bleecker Street, a pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara and mozzarella cheese. The Oleksak’s locally source all the ingredients for The Bleecker St. from neighboring food retailers on Bleecker Street. After having spent the last few months focused on the development its product and streamlining operational structure, Bantam’s focus this year is expansion.

Steven Hsiao & Anson Tsui, co-founders

Ages: 28 and 26

Company:  SpoonRocket, an online, gourmet delivery service offering California’s East Bay ultra-cheap, chef-prepared, ready-to-eat meals

How they’re changing specialty food: Making convenient gourmet meals delivered to consumers’ doors a reality.

When these two University of California, Berkeley students started a late-night delivery service, they were showcasing typical college fare—cheeseburgers, carne asada fries. They’ve since shifted gears to focus on fresh ingredients, careful sourcing, and sustainability. Their goal: to make the most convenient and delicious gourmet meal available at the click of a button. When they got backing from Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley venture capital startup, SpoonRocket was born. Today, members pay a $40 annual subscription for access to meals at $6 apiece, such as sweet potato lasagna or stuffed organic chicken breast. Only two options are available each day—one way the company says it keeps its cost down. In the next year, the company plans to grow their San Francisco presence and expand to the business model to Los Angeles and New York City. The company participates in a meal-matching program with World Food Program USA, in which one meal is donated to a child in need for every meal purchased through SpoonRocket.

Taylor Cocalis Suarez & Dorothy Neagle, co-founders

Ages: 30 and 31

Company: Good Food Jobs, an online job search engine designed for people who want meaningful work in food. All postings pertain to sustainable food and/or food culture, but go beyond what traditionally defines a food job, like working exclusively in a restaurant or kitchen.

How they’re changing specialty food: Helping talented people connect and contribute to the food industry in new ways and redefine food careers.

Officially launched in October 2010, Good Food Jobs has posted 11,000 jobs, amassed 44,000 active users, and built a following of more than 33,000 who subscribe to the company’s weekly newsletter. Suarez and Neagle started the company out of necessity: both were looking for their next steps in the food world and couldn’t find any centralized place to look for food-related jobs. What they did find was a flawed job culture that had become a source of confusion, stress, and a burden. They changed it by offering solutions that help make people feel more human in their job search process, such as a weekly newsletter that showcases interviews with food manufacturers, helping to foster a relatable connection between job seekers and industry members. Job opportunities on the website run the gamut, from farming and working with food artisans to policy and retail. The site and the accompanying “Gastrognomes” blog educate users about the multitude of ways one can embark on a food-related career—one that is satisfying, empowering, and beneficial to others. Good Food Jobs recently launched a refreshed look with easier navigation. Moving forward, the company’s primary goal is to bring more people together offline with informal gatherings for job seekers.

Philip Rubin & Phillip Zucchino, owners/partners

Ages: 29

Company: The Wine Feed, an online retailer and brick-and-mortar wine store and bar that focuses on educating consumers through a selective portfolio and in-person events.

How they’re changing specialty food: By removing the cloud of pretentiousness that has alienated customers for too long, they say. And helping people identify their own taste preferences through a consultative approach. 

While attending Appalachian State University, Rubin and Zucchino discovered a shared interest in wine. Through winery internships, study-abroad programs, and rigorous post-graduation wine training, they realized a shared vision to explain and teach wine to others—without the haughtiness that tends to drive away potential new customers. Launching as an online retail business in 2011, The Wine Feed emphasized wine styles, rather than prioritizing typically preferred features like brand name, country of origin, and vintage. The business has evolved into a concept that serves its customers even better, with a European-inspired wine store and wine bar in Raleigh, N.C., where people can shop, stay for a glass, and learn about wine. The founders hope to grow The Wine Feed into a nationwide wine retailer, starting with a network of small-footprint wine stores and bars supported by an engaging, customer-friendly e-commerce site.

Tori Sickles, marketing manager

Age: 30

Company: Sickles Market, a fourth-generation, century-old market offering high-quality selections of produce, meats, cut-to-order artisanal cheeses, deli, gourmet groceries, flowers, and gifts.

How she’s changing specialty food: Simplifying the online shopping experience, paired with a more organic experiential engagement in-store, via hands-on workshops and luxury tours to the places where products are grown and produced.

Sickles joined the family business in 2008 after graduating from college and working for an international educational company in Washington, D.C. “While I loved the market, my dad and I both agreed that it was important for me to get work experience in other businesses first,” she says. Sickles has moved up from marketing assistant to marketing manager, overseeing the department, which handles all communications, signage, charity events, educational events, advertising, public relations, social media, and—her newest responsibility—the management of company’s online store. Sickles shares new developments and ideas with staff by researching food trends, alternative diets, and unique vendors. She attributes a huge part of the store’s success to an enthusiastic and highly educated staff. “An educated customer is a good customer,” is her mantra, and two initiatives in 2014 reflect that: the online shop, for which she has hired a dedicated team, and Sickles’ “On the Road Tours,” a series of day trips and travel programs to exceptional culinary and horticultural destinations in the U.S. The tours regularly sell out, she notes. “These journeys take customers to the source, where they receive private tours often by the owners themselves,” Sickles explains. “Taking customers directly to culinary destinations allows them to experience firsthand what makes a specialty product special.”

Dan Klein & Patrick Tannous, CEO and president, respectively

Ages: 25

Company: Tiesta Tea, affordable all-natural, high-quality loose-leaf tea blends with real fruit and herbs sporting a youthful brand and packaging.

How they’re changing specialty food: offering exotic loose-leaf tea blends that are easy to pick from and work well with a simple brewing utility. 

What began as an idea from a college study-abroad trip in Prague, Klein and Tannous started Tiesta Tea in 2010 with the intention of making high-quality loose-leaf tea accessible, by dodging the high-end feel of some tea companies and giving it an energetic, youthful image, while keeping it affordable. To keep costs low, the duo came up with a “demo derby”—an in-store demo concept that would let them avoid slotting fees combined with a full-blown social media experience that engages customers both in stores and online to drive business. Their social media presence became so strong, they were recognized by Forbes as the “Fan Choice” for most innovative consumer brand. The pouches and tins of black, white, green, mate, oolong, herbal, and rooibos varieties fall into five categories: Energizer, Relaxer, Eternity, Slenderizer, and Immunity. Multiple flavors under each category bear playful names, such as Blueberry Wild Child, Lean Green Machine, and Sparkling White Grape. This year they will be focusing on a new iced tea line and distribution in several more chains nationwide.


Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.