If food entrepreneurship were a series of races for prizes, Grain4Grain has proved itself a thoroughbred. They took third prize in the HEB Quest for Texas Best contest, winning $10,000 in 2019. In 2020 Grain4Grain won first prize and $50,000 in the Tech Fuel contest, sponsored by the City of San Antonio and Tech Block, a San Antonio-based technology advocacy group. In May of 2021 grocery-store giant Kroger’s Zero Waste Foundation selected them for funding and inclusion in a program for food innovators. This included a $100,000 grant, plus the chance for an additional $100,00 funding based on milestones achieved.
Their big idea, I have to admit, is pretty cool. The founders Yoni Medhin and Matthew Mechtly collect a waste product from local brewers – spent barley used for making beer – and apply a patent-pending drying process to produce flour and flour-based products like pancake and waffle mix.
Grain4Grain also checks off a lot boxes that are current “in the moment” consumer trends.
Medhin calls their specific form of organic recycling “upcycling,” a term I hadn’t heard before but which means turning a food waste product into a higher-end consumer food product. I’ve since learned there’s a whole upcycling mini-industry for turning waste products into highly processed foods, and it’s a big 2021 trendy food concept.
Following the brewing process, the spent grains are naturally high in protein and fiber and low in carbohydrates, which allows Grain4Grain to market their flour for folks who seek a “low carb” or “keto” diet, so they’ve got that diet trend covered. They also advertise donating a pound of their pancake mix to food banks for every pound sold to customers, so they do good as they do well.
That’s a lot of different ways to appeal to folks.
Ryan Salts, the director of Launch SA, a small business and entrepreneurship center, recalls being impressed with the Grain4Grain founders and pushed them to enter the Tech Fuel contest. When he heard about the contest, “The first person I thought of was Yoni,” says Salts.
“Grain4Grain fits a diet requirement that is really popular, in the last five years, there’s been an uptick in healthier brands. And having a product that does really good things, it’s helpful,” adds Salts.
More important than prizes and a cool idea, of course, is having supermarket megastores like HEB and Kroger interested in your brand and willing to put your product on their shelves. There is no higher prize than that. In January 2021, the company announced its upcycled grain flour would be featured and used in HEB’s 140 bakeries throughout the state.
Eugen Simor runs Alamo Brewery, which along with local San Antonio breweries Freetail and Real Ale, supplies Grain4Grain’s spent barley product. Simor’s company allows Grain4Grain to pick it up for free, since it’s otherwise a cost to dispose of.
As Simor told me “They’re taking what would normally be a waste product for so many breweries. It would normally be hauled off to a rancher to feed cattle, or end up in a landfill.” The majority of Alamo’s grain still goes toward a local rancher who picks it up for free. But he was happy to find Grain4Grain developing another use for it.
“We did an Earth day for sustainability at Alamo Brewery and his product was one of the ones we featured. Yoni’s a really cool guy and I wanted to be part of it,” Simor says. “I was excited about having a low carb flour, and my kids like it too.”
Salts’ particular passion is food-oriented startups, which he champions with his “Break Fast and Launch” program through Launch SA. In the food startup space, many companies struggle with trying to do both the production side and the marketing side. Many choose just one or the other.
Medhin has managed to partner with other packagers to solve most of his manufacturing problems, to get to the scale he needs to provide upcycled flour to HEB, large-scale bakeries, and hopefully someday soon, Kroger.
Like many entrepreneurs, Mehdin has already run the equivalent of many marathons to get this far. But in many ways his journey is still in its early days. The struggle to both sell a consumer-oriented retail product while at the same time building a manufacturing business to provide wholesale product at scale is really, really hard. He estimates they need another 6 months to solve their problem of getting to a large enough scale where he and his investors can start making money. His strategy in the future will depend more on providing bulk flour to the biggest food companies rather than direct-to-consumer sales. “Check back with me in June 2022,” he says.
Being eco friendly, low-carb friendly, and foodbank friendly are all amazing attributes. But Mehdin is more realist than idealist, when it comes to the needs of the consumer.
As Mehdin says, “customers don’t purchase altruistically. They say they do. But in reality for food products they purchase for taste, price, availability, texture, and health factors. You have to meet their immediate needs and you have to bring the product to the level of the traditional food products in the marketplace.”
This morning before writing this column I cooked up Grain4Grain pancakes based on their low-carb pancake and waffle mix. I can hereby certify: they were delicious. But it left me wondering whether pancakes slathered in butter, syrup, and blueberries still qualified as low-carb? I’m asking for a friend.
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