Aug 15, 2022
BY DENNIS HUSPENI firstname.lastname@example.org
Roberto Meza launched the East Denver Food Hub in 2020, amidst the pandemic as supply chains dried up, restaurants and niche grocery retailers closed.
He did it with Co-Founder Dave Demerling almost as a necessity to save his Emerald Farms business in Bennett.
As a first-generation small farmer and immigrant from Mexico, he worked with other farmers to get their produce to food banks, any remaining open restaurants, hotels, and other retailers.
In an ironic twist, the business model might never had been born without the pandemic disrupting the world’s economy and exposing large supply chain weaknesses.
“In moments of vulnerability, opportunities for change emerge,” Meza said. “The bigger the player in the supply chain, they’re not as nimble. We can mobilize quickly and have proved the shorter supply chain is resilient, trusted and transparent.”
“Partnerships have been our biggest ally,” Demerling said.
The rapid growth of this start-up in two years prompted Meza to look for guidance taking it to the next level.
Enter Denver's Latino Leadership Institute.
Meza had heard the Institute, a Denver-based education and networking association founded in 2013 by a group of metro Denver Latino leaders including former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, was starting a new program for established start-ups to get to the next level. It’s called Latino Entrepreneur Access Program (LEAP).
“The more I looked into it, the more it resonated with my values of creating and supporting Latino businesses and creating a kind of broad network of minority-owned and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) entrepreneurs,” Meza said.
“We were already producing entrepreneurs and so we started talking to our own alumni,” said Harry Hollines, chief strategy officer.
Partnering with the University of Denver, the institute has graduated dozens of participants.
“We came away with a pretty clear understanding of the challenges that prevent, or hinder, a Latino business from both launching and scaling and reaching their full potential and that was the impetus behind LEAP," he said.
The initial cohort of 11 will participate in the free program for a year. The key benefit is the board of 40+ advisors available to each LEAP participant.
“One of the main reasons for that formal board is, at the growth stage of a company, they’re looking at how you put scalable processes in place,” Hollines said. “How do you build a sales force, a sales methodology? What is my operational strategy look like? What is my go-to market look like? They take more of a longer-term view than startups.”
While the program is free to participants, advisory board members are paid.
“We think that when you compensate, you actually change the psychology of that relationship,” he said. “The other component is that Latino board representation is low .. so our goal is that they can leverage that into other paid board positions.”
East Denver Food Hub is ready for that next stage of growth.
Meza and Demerling were close to finding bigger warehouse space with more refrigeration space at the end of July. They have 14 employees now, including a couple of University of Colorado Boulder (paid) student interns.
“The food hub is essentially an intermediary that helps to connect farmers to their community by offering the services of aggregation, distribution, eating and market access,” Meza said. “We take it a step further to really begin building out a framework that advances a new, sustainable, local, equitable and resilient regional food system. By that, we mean to imbue the food economy with values that we really are deeply committed to.”
Meza, born in Mexico City, came to Colorado in 2014 after a stint as an artist in New York City and earning a Masters degree from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
“The challenges I faced were huge student loans after graduating and accessing the resources to even start a farm,” Meza said.
Banks wouldn’t give him a small business loan because he didn’t have two years of ownership under his belt.
“There’s not a lot of support to start farming, especially for young people.”
He started controlled-environment grow operation in a small green room in his house, and began growing microgreens, leafy greens and salad mixes. He started selling to a few restaurants and things took off. Meza got investors and landed 35 acres in Bennett, where the farm also has a commercial poultry and egg operation.
“We just want to promote more farming for people of color to be their own farm owners and use our 35 acres cooperatively in an ecosystem of businesses,” Meza said.
Institute leaders said growing a network of people of color entrepreneurs, and business owners is key.
“LEAP is a game-changer in how we ensure our Latino and BIPOC businesses capitalize on their own business investments through the backing, knowledge and investment of a different kind of professional leadership bench and accelerator,” said CEO Joelle Martinez. “We have utilized our strength to create businesses, now it’s time we use that same strength to build stronger economic power.”
“We're more resilient together and it's a humbling experience to understand that I don't have to do everything by myself. There are people out there in community to help us do this,” Meza said.
The Institute cites statistics like: “Latino business-owners are the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the U.S., yet only 6% have expanded beyond sole-person firms.
“They are also less likely than White entrepreneurs to have professional mentorship, depending instead on their family and social networks for business advice.”
Meza hopes to use that advice to open the Hub’s first brick-and-mortar store in North Denver, and expand the distribution network.
“We hope to solidify a farm-to-institution distribution model that allows us to supply hospitals, schools, correctional facilities, community organizations, food pantries, food banks, with as much local food as possible from farmers,” he said. “A local food supply chain that’s built on the values of cooperation, rights, sustainability, reciprocity – a kind of economy of collaboration.”
LLI is partnering with the New Community Transformation Fund, “a BIPOC and women-led investment fund, to provide equity investments and support the capital readiness of LEAP entrepreneurs,” according to a release. “The Colorado Trust, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, U.S. Bank, Gates Family Foundation, Kenneth King Foundation, Xcel Energy Foundation and Molson Coors have each made early financial commitments.”