Brewing Business: Can Kickstarter Create A New Food Economy?

My new crowd-funded coffee pot got me thinking

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Somewhere, at some time, you’ve probably met someone with a very well-thought-out, plausible, structured and completely insane plan to start his or her own food business. Maybe it was to sell a line of designer chutneys. Or unfiltered honey from a rooftop apiary. Maybe it was to open an omakase bar where the chef would make perfect sliders and hash browns and hand them to you as they came off the grill. (Full disclosure: this is actually my dream.) What is simultaneously inspiring but also depressing about all of these visions is the fact that they are almost certainly bound for failure. They are like the baby sea turtles you see on nature shows, 499 of every 500 of which get picked off by predators before they reach the ocean.

But Kickstarter is, in its small, crowd-funded way, helping to change those odds. And this, I would submit, is a very good thing for people who care a lot about what we eat.

Because our food system is a commercial one — producers need to make money — few suppliers really care what the pundits on the Huffington Post food pages say about “food deserts” and high-fructose corn syrup and “the agribusiness lobby.” Of course, progressivism has become so Sisyphean in this country that even the most ardent advocates of reform don’t really expect it to happen on a broad scale. But there, sitting on my kitchen counter, as shiny and new as the stuff that come out of GE’s missile department, is a piece of evidence that things can indeed change for the better.

(MORE: Will Crowdfunding Drive a New Wave of Startup Investing?)

It’s a coffee pot. At least, it looks like a pot; actually, it’s a coffee press, a high-tech, micro-filtered version called an Espro Press. My wife has a restless, Faustian intellect, of the kind that is always looking to improve things. This was one thing that needed no improvement; my method of making coffee, with a metal drip cone, was one I had been happy with for 15 years. But it was a Chock Full O’ Nuts method in a Stumptown world, and so it had to go. (Or so my wife decreed.) She therefore was researching French presses on the web and found the Espro through Google.

I won’t bore you with the details of the Espro. Suffice it to say that it is the proverbial better mousetrap alluded to by champions of free trade. The makers didn’t have access to a coffee-pot factory, and there aren’t many venture capitalists waiting to write checks for coffee pots. So the inventors went on Kickstarter, a site that allows people with quirky projects to ask strangers for money. I don’t know why strangers comply; most of the time, there’s no return on the investment promised, except maybe a discount on the thing if it ever gets manufactured. The only thing Kickstarter guarantees is that it won’t charge anyone until the project hits its funding goal. There’s still some good faith involved, but my wife has a vast reservoir of that, and so she helped Espro reach its modest goal of $15,000. Plenty of people have jumped on the bandwagon since then, secure in the awareness that the project is actually going to move forward. Currently the Espro has gotten over $83,000 in pledges on Kickstarter and is now taking wholesale orders from the site. This, then, is a legitimate success story — at least so far.

(MORE: Seven Foods You Should Eat Before You Die)

Americans, it turns out, believe in the idea of innovation and small business. I do too. I want there to be ways for people to eat pork from pigs that haven’t been tortured; I want urban farms to be more than just subsidized showpieces; I want people who work hard even on something as stupid as jam to be able to make a living from it. In the past few years there have been a few attempts to help people do this. The Food Craft Institute, run by my friend Marcy Coburn in Oakland, tries to do this, as do a few other non-profit programs. But Kickstarter seems like the best and possibly the only way for a small producer to get up and running.

Of course, it’s essential that the start-ups make a quality product. Right now, Kickstarter’s funding opportunities are a mixed bag at best. Among the offerings are a cooking app (no thanks); a New Orleans pop-up pizzeria that needs an oven (would do it if I lived nearby); a traditional Irish spirit (backers who submit less than $500 aren’t even promised a free bottle; no thanks); and a fermented sauerkraut company here in NYC (yes, please). Of course, of the four, only the first really needs me; the rest have all hit their goals recently, which makes me less interested in helping.

Why? Because Kickstarter draws on our social impulses. Surfing Kickstarter, unlike so many of our experiences with food producers and preparers, is participatory, even collaborative. Despite the browseable interface, users don’t feel like a shopper noiselessly passing by towering shelves of competing brands in the supermarket, or a diner poised before a glowing screen listing rival restaurants. On the contrary, Kickstarter feels more like a community board meeting, with one annoying person after another standing up and giving his or her reason why their particular crank scheme ought to be followed, only to be shouted down, ignored, or warily supported by (a few) peers.

This may not qualify as what Karl Marx would have called “seizing the means of production” — Cargill laughs at your puny sauerkraut company — but it actually works, albeit in a very small-scale way. The story of American business tends to be that of Tuckers and Teslas, brilliant innovators squashed by their better-funded rivals. And no doubt, that will continue to be the story. But, as I sit in front of my home computer and reflect over a cup of strong, silt-free coffee, maybe not always. I am bookmarking Kickstarter’s food page. You should too.

MORE: A Gourmet Food’s Growing Pains