From organic bread to cake-based vodka, food entrepreneurs share recipes for success


With products ranging from bread and beer to an algae-based egg substitute, local food and beverage businesses convened for a forum on food innovation Wednesday.

The event highlighted how the North County food industry is capitalizing on regional trends of healthy eating, craft beer and sustainability, along with some of San Diego’s quirkier offerings.

Sponsored by Innovate 78, a consortium of the five cities that line the Interstate 78 corridor, the event featured samples of organic baked goods, salsa and small-batch almond milk, as well as local beer and spirits. And it highlighted stories of local entrepreneurs, who shared their experiences founding food companies.

The forum aimed to “create community around food and beverage,” said Cardiff investor Douglas Raggio. “It’s just easier when you have other people in the trenches with you.”

The event took place in a grove of oaks and palms off Twin Oaks Valley Road near San Marcos. The pastoral site houses rows of greenhouses, where the host company, Plantible, is growing a species of aquatic plant that has properties of egg whites, and can help meet global demand for sustainable protein.

“The problem grows as our population grows,” said Maurits Van de Ven, co-founder of tPlantible. “We have more people, but not enough protein, less fresh water and less arable land.”

He and his partners founded Plantible in their native Holland, and took the leap to California a year ago. They moved into the San Marcos site, where they’re conducting research and development on how to grow and process plant protein from lemna, a type of duckweed. The verstatile substance forms a thick, meringue-like foam when whipped, a solid gel when heated, and acts as an emulsifier if combined with liquids, he said.

“I wanted to do something that really contributed on a bigger scale, rather than just owning a business,” Van de Ven said.

The desire to make a difference in the world by changing what we put on the table was a consistent theme of the evening.

“Five-and-a-half years ago I had a very nice job with a local company, Stone Brewing, having tons of fun” said Chuck Samuelson, founder and board member of Kitchens for Good, a San Diego nonprofit. Nonetheless, he said, “I kept waking up thinking I’ve got to do more.”

He co-founded the organization in order to feed local people in need, while combating the roots of food insecurity through job training. The program and kitchen caters events, donates healthy meals to the homeless, seniors and after school programs, and trains students for culinary careers.

“Hunger is not about food,” Samuelson said. “Hunger is about poverty.”

By schooling felons, foster youth and homeless people for jobs in the food industry, Samuelson said, the nonprofit provides food for the hungry, while reducing their ranks.

Other participants at the forum said they are trying to offer healthy, sustainable varieties of staple foods. Melissa and Adam Fineston sell cold-pressed almond milk at several farmer’s markets through their Oceanside-based company, the Mulk Co. With flavors including chocolate, strawberry and turmeric- and ginger-infused “golden milk,” they aimed to offer a tasty, unsweetened drink.

“Chocolate milk is high in sugar, and a lot of kids are lactose intolerant,” said Melissa. “We try to make an alternative milk product that rivals dairy.”

Misadventures & Company, a San Marcos-based distillery, also puts a unusual spin on a common product, taking leftover baked goods from the San Diego Food Bank and turning it into vodka that they sell to local bars and restaurants.

Each bottle of vodka they produce keeps about two pounds of food out of a landfill, the company says. That allows them to sequester more carbon than they release to the atmosphere, co-founder and CEO Sam Chereskin said.

“If I ever get to make a bourbon (from) corn tortilla, that will be the most California thing that ever happened,” he said.

Well, almost. That distinction might actually belong to another pair of entrepreneurs who spoke Wednesday, sisters Anne Buehner and Mary Carr. The North County natives are developing “The Cado,” a pop-up museum built in homage to what they call “California’s favorite fruit,” the avocado.

The museum, to be constructed from shipping containers, was slated to open this summer at Liberty Station, but was postponed indefinitely due to construction delays. Buehner and Carr, with backgrounds in marketing and brand development, told the audience that dealing with building schedules was a big learning curve in their enterprise; after months of promotion, they had to refund tickets to the installation.

Still, they said, Californians’ passion for avocados — abundantly displayed on Instagram — has sustained the project during the hiatus.

“The love of avocados is really universal, but not everybody knows why they love them or why they’re so important,” Buehner said. Twitter@deborahsbrennan