2014 Leadership Awards
The Specialty Food Association and Specialty Food Magazine are pleased to present the winners of the second annual Leadership Awards, honoring industry leaders in the realms of Citizenship, Vision and Business Leadership. These leaders’ efforts span the globe, from supporting indigenous tribes in Ecuador, to establishing a progressive and venerable work environment in Northern California, to initiating sustainable farming practices in Southeast Asia.
By Eva Meszaros
Nominations for the Leadership Awards were made by members of the Specialty Food Association and others in the trade. A panel of judges comprising industry experts and influencers selected the honorees from 66 nominees across the three categories. A special thanks to the 2014 judges: Hanna Bree, marketing manager, Blue Hill Market; Donna Daniels, director of programs and strategic communications, Social Venture Network; David Gagnon, chief operating officer, interim co-executive director, Organic Trade Association; Nicole Kagan, senior director, major gifts, City Harvest; Tim Metzger, owner, Tillen Farms; John Raiche, vice president of marketing, UNFI; and Errol Schweizer, executive global coordinator, grocery team, Whole Foods Market.
Winners were chosen in three categories:
For improving the lives of people and communities by advancing environmental and social sustainability knowledge and practices
For pioneering new approaches, innovative products and business models that have set in motion positive change and progress
For advancing best practices in the food industry across the spectrum of workforce issues to benefit food industry personnel
2014 Leadership Award: Citizenship
Tyler Gage, Runa Tea
Immersing himself in the indigenous communities of Ecuador gave Tyler Gage insight into the daily lives of the Kichwa people and their struggle to embrace cultural traditions while making a living to support their families. Through those very traditions, he found a way to help.
As a college student, Gage traveled to Ecuador in 2008 to study Amazonian plants, and found an inextricable connection between nature and the indigenous Kichwa tribes. “For the native community,” he explains, “the supermarkets—they’re the rainforest.”
He became absorbed with their culture and way of life, but soon recognized a stark dilemma. “I’d spend all night in incredible ceremonies with rich expressions of these native traditions,” he recalls. “But then, as soon as the sun would rise, you’d hear chainsaws cutting down hardwood trees.”
His hosts often spoke strongly of the importance of protecting the environment and, through them, he learned of the daily challenges these communities face. In an increasingly globalized world, giving up valuable rainforest land was the only means of income to support their families’ needs of health, education and basic necessities.
Gage found a solution from within. Guayusa, a native plant the Kichwa brewed into tea, offered a daily source of energy and antioxidants with a smoother taste than many typical teas. Americans’ love affair with healthful energy drinks was growing, so in his final year at school, Gage and Dan MacCombie, a classmate who had also spent time in Ecuador, set to work on a business plan. They named the product Runa, meaning “fully alive” or “fully living” in Kichwa. Today, the line comprises bottled and canned tea drinks in sweetened and unsweetened varieties, tins of loose leaves and bagged teas in boxes.
Returning to Ecuador after graduation in 2009, Gage and MacCombie launched the business with a grant from the Ecuadorian government. Sourcing guayusa solely from those indigenous communities, Runa now supports some 2,400 farming families—more than 10,000 people, Gage estimates. “This year we’ll generate $275,000 of direct income for these farmers,” he says. Funds have had a holistic impact on the region, with more than $20,000 funneled each year into community development projects, and some 150,000 trees donated to farmers and planted annually on their land.
Gage says a nonprofit platform drives the business and its efforts to be as high-impact as possible. “We’re not a supply chain. We’re not just buying stuff and selling it, but we’re using the sourcing of goods as a way to create value,” for the local communities, the land, the country and consumers, he explains.
Runa is currently working with the Ecuadorian government to implement partial employee ownership, to make the farmers shareholders in the business. Gage plans to have a minimum of 10 percent of the company farmer-owned.
Runa has its sights set on continued growth. In 2013, Gage says, the business grew about 300 percent over 2012 numbers. “We’re on track [for 2014] to hopefully triple our sales again and triple our impact for the farmers,” he adds.
International expansion has also begun: the organization is aiming to replicate Ecuador’s successes in neighboring Peru and its native Quechua and Shipibo communities. “We’ve seen that this whole model we have—sustainable agriculture and what we call forest gardening—is one of the few tools that can be a stimulus for sustainable economic development for rural farming communities in the Amazon, but then also be a conservation tool,” Gage says.
In looking to the future, Gage, now 27 years old, reflects on past specialty food leaders that he says have paved the way for Runa’s achievements: “Our advisers and the people we see in the industry who have built incredible brands that we admire—it’s on their footsteps that we’re able to do what we do.”
2014 Leadership Award: Vision
Caryl Levine, Lotus Foods
Having pioneered an effort to take rice farmers from conventional to organic farming, Levine and her husband, Ken Lee, had already made an environmental impact. But they found an even higher calling when they joined an innovative sustainable-farming program that would benefit rice suppliers, consumers and the environment.
Organic rice was Levine and Lee’s goal when launching Lotus Foods nearly 18 years ago: educating farmers in Southeast Asia about the value of organic farming, and teaching consumers the benefits of eating organic rice. The many heirloom varieties the brand comprises today were virtually unknown in the U.S. before Lotus Foods brought back the likes of black Forbidden Rice from China and red rice from Bhutan. “From the very outset, we always wanted to be innovators,” says Levine.
But it wasn’t until Cornell University approached the company for a partnership that the couple embarked on an even bolder effort. Researchers were seeking to implement an improved method of rice farming, called System of Rice Intensification, that would conserve resources—primarily water—and increase yields for rice farmers. Joining forces with an established business that had the marketing knowhow, a positive image and a growing following ensured a ready and willing consumer base for the resulting crops.
SRI became the catchier More Crop Per Drop, which also became the name of the company’s line of sustainably grown rice, and Lotus Foods set to work on showing consumers what made their new rice so special.
Traditional rice farming in countries such as Bhutan, Cambodia, China and Indonesia involves a surfeit of resources that often drain farming families to the point of poverty. “Imagine being a farmer and not having enough to eat,” Levine says. With the demand for water, fertilizer, pesticides and other supplies in conventional farming, “it was a negative sum at the end of the harvest.”
Where old methods called for continuous flooding of rice paddies, SRI taught farmers to alternate wet and dry periods, resulting in a 25 to 50 percent reduction in water use and fewer methane emissions (caused by the rotting of roots with constant flooding). The SRI process calls for transplanting rice seedlings at a much younger age (days versus weeks), using 90 percent fewer seeds and less land. “Farmers who are adopting this methodology are getting double and triple their yields,” Levine notes.
Fair trade pricing, reduced labor and less land dedicated to rice farming mean families have more earnings, time and resources, Levine continues. Women, typically the primary farmers, have more time for childrearing, money to send children to school and land to grow fruit and vegetable gardens, giving them not only a more varied diet but crops that sell for higher prices than rice in the marketplace.
Consumers get a clean, nutritious, flavorful array of products that are organic and fair trade certified, as well as a chance to contribute to the well-being of families and communities on the other side of the globe. “Just by how we change the way we grow rice, we can have environmental, economic and social impact,” Levine says.
Innovation fuels success and growth, and Lotus Foods continues to build awareness and sales with two new product introductions. Heat & Eat Bowls provide shelf-stable, fully cooked rice for busy, on-the-go shoppers, using a new method that retains the texture and taste of fresh-cooked grains. “I think it introduces more consumers to whole grain and more nutritional rices,” says Levine of the convenient, user-friendly product line.
The newest Rice Ramen offers not only more nutritious noodles, using Forbidden Rice, Jade Pearl Rice, and millet and brown rice as the base for three varieties, but a gluten-free option too. Initially exclusive to Whole Foods, the product will be available to all buyers starting with the Winter Fancy Food Show in January.
Levine is quick to note that the award is as much for her husband and co-founder, Lee, and the company as a whole. “We have an amazing team at Lotus Foods,” she says. “And everyone is there because they want to be there and they really see the difference we make on a daily basis.”
2014 Leadership Award: Business Leadership
Ron Rubin, The Republic of Tea
Invoking a mantra of “Sip by Sip Rather than Gulp by Gulp,” Ron Rubin has embraced health and well-being in all aspects of his work, from the ethical sourcing of restorative teas to engaging his staff to embrace a healthful and mindful lifestyle.
When Rubin bought The Republic of Tea in 1994, two years after its founding, he saw an opportunity in a growing movement. Health-conscious consumers were paying more attention to what they ate and drank, premium beverages like Perrier and Evian were entering the market, and Whole Foods was blazing a trail to a new lifestyle millions would come to embrace. Twenty years later, The Republic of Tea is a top purveyor of more than 300 premium teas and tea products available at some 20,000 gourmet retailers and restaurants in the United States.
At the outset, tea was still a fledgling category. “Everybody was drinking coffee and speeding things up, trying to get a buzz versus slowing their lives down,” says Rubin. He took to heart the founders’ “Sip by Sip Rather than Gulp by Gulp” slogan, which embodied the focus on health and wellness that tea is synonymous with today.
Rubin was inspired not only to preach the mantra to consumers, but also practice it within the company. Every aspect of the business incorporates the mindfulness its products aim to evoke, from ethical sourcing and eco-friendly packaging to a program dedicated to employee health and wellness. “From day one, tea took us into the direction of a Healthy Minister Program,” Rubin says of the program that not only encourages but helps employees—playfully called Ministers as part of the company’s self-identity as “an independent republic,” Rubin explains—to live a healthful lifestyle.
The Healthy Minister Program has evolved to give employees copious benefits that helped The Republic of Tea earn a place on Outside Magazine’s “Best Places to Work” list in 2013. Among the perks the team enjoys are free athletic shoes every year, a fulltime staff nutritionist, on-site weekly yoga classes and daily walking breaks. Benefits such as paid volunteer days, childcare credits and a scholarship program embrace mental and financial wellness too.
“I’ve seen ministers who were smokers and now they’re nonsmokers,” Rubin says of the impact. “I’ve seen people make lifestyle changes and then pass that on to their spouses and their family. It’s been exciting.”
Even more influential on the company may be the annual tea trips. Every year, employees travel to the sites where The Republic of Tea sources its ingredients—China, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Taiwan among them. The idea came to Rubin early on as he traveled frequently to meet with suppliers around the world. He realized the experience would be both enchanting and educational. “When you go to the origin … it’s going to give you a lot of confidence promoting the tea and the tea revolution,” Rubin explains. Employees meet the growers, help pick the leaves in the fields and learn firsthand about the local cultures. “It’s life-changing,” he asserts.
Despite its many successes and continued growth, The Republic of Tea remains a family-run business with an emphasis on the specialty food industry, and Rubin plans to keep it that way. The company employs about 105 people, Rubin says. His son Todd signed on in 2007, and is moving into a leadership role, “to take it to the next generation.”
As for moving into mass retail, Rubin isn’t particularly interested. “We’ve been a specialty tea company and remain specialty. There comes a point where a brand has to decide whether they want to cross the line and go from specialty to mass,” he explains. “And that’s not for us.”
Amid stiff competition, three additional leaders stood out for their innovation and effort. These honorable mentions offer plenty of inspiration for their invaluable contributions to specialty food.
Citizenship: Sam Mogannam, Bi-Rite Market
The second-generation owner of one of San Francisco’s most recognized food destinations transformed the family business after taking over in 1997. San Mogannam has grown Bi-Rite Market into a place of impact, always with the community in mind. He has paved the way with the company’s direct relationships with area nonprofits and community groups, whether delivering excess bread through nonprofit Free the Need to low-income families or partnering with startup CropMobster, which diverts surplus foods to disadvantaged people. Since 2007, Bi-Rite Market has run 18 Reasons, a nonprofit community and education center teaching healthful lifestyles.
Vision: Justin Gold, Justin’s
Justin Gold has created a wildly successful, and sofi Award–winning, line of gourmet nut butters and better-for-you sweets, such as peanut butter cups and chocolate bars, containing more fiber and protein and less sugar than similar products. He made waves when he organized and hosted the inaugural Sustainable Squeeze Pack Summit in 2010, bringing together industry experts to set goals for creating 100 percent renewable packaging. The company’s nut butters have already made the switch to BPA-free jars containing 47 percent less plastic, and goal updates appear regularly on justins.com. Gold’s philanthropic efforts extend to his hometown of Boulder, Colo., and beyond, from supporting local charities and indigenous tribes in South Dakota, to funding microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries through the Whole Planet Foundation’s Microloan a Month Fund, of which Gold is a founding member.
Business Leadership: Greg Steltenpohl, Califia Farms
The co-founder of Odwalla moved on to greener pastures when he founded a grower-owned company producing healthful beverages, including signature Cuties Juices. The Bakersfield, Calif., producer has worked to diminish the city’s high unemployment rate, creating more than 60 entry-level, mostly year-round jobs. Parent company Sun Pacific offers employees a chance to further their careers, giving out three $20,000 university scholarships and two $3,000 trade school or community college scholarships. Not only is Steltenpohl a partner of Esalen Institute, creating and conducting seminars on responsible business practices, but he is also a founding member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a network of entrepreneurs focused on local economic growth.
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