BY LEA THOMPSON
San Antonio—where a taqueria, food truck or pop-up event can be found on nearly every corner—is wrapped inside a vibrant food culture. But to have a restaurant thrive amid the ever-crowded culinary market can require more than just superb cooking skills.
That’s where Break Fast & Launch, the nation’s first food business accelerator, comes in. Created in San Antonio, the program is working to replace the food industry’s cutthroat culture with creative collaboration. Developed under Cafe Commerce, a nonprofit resource center for entrepreneurs, Break Fast & Launch aims to empower local culinary startups through business education, mentoring and connections in San Antonio’s food community. Nearly 35 local small businesses have graduated from the program since its inception in January 2015, and applications are being accepted this month for a new class set to begin in September.
“You’ve got all these people starting their dreams in culinary, but they don’t really have a business background,” says Ryan Salts, Break Fast & Launch’s director. “That’s where we come in. This industry is not for the faint of heart, and sometimes people realize that it doesn’t work or that they need more time before they start a business. There’s a real value to those connections.”
Break Fast & Launch focuses on two specific sectors of the culinary industry: food and beverage—restaurants and bars—and product creators and food technology—food-related businesses that aren’t restaurants or bars. Each sector offers students a 10-week program that provides access to mentors in the local food community and a curriculum that covers everything from marketing and accounting to potential real estate issues.
When Randy Ward entered the food and beverage program in 2015, he was looking to leave his position as a natural gas trader for Shell and forge a new career as a brewer. He had years of homebrewing experience plus investment funds, but he was still looking for someone to go into business with. “This would’ve been a whole lot easier if I was 22,” Ward says. “But I’m 48, so it was more difficult to find the right business partner. None of my friends or family were willing to leave their own careers.”
At a Break Fast & Launch meetup, Ward connected with Chris Mobley and Boyan Kalusevic, cofounders of Dorćol Distilling Co., and learned they were looking to expand their existing business to also include a brewery.
Throughout his time in the program, Ward kept in touch with the Dorćol team. After he launched HighWheel Beerworks, Ward partnered with Mobley and Kalusevic to offer his brews at Dorćol, where they’ve been served since May. HighWheel started with four beers—an IPA, a porter, an ale and a brown ale—and has since begun distributing to other San Antonio taps, including Francis Bogside, Lüke and Liberty Bar. Without Break Fast & Launch, Ward says, he would never have made connections like the one at Dorćol.
Unlike Ward, Break Fast & Launch graduate Katrina Cailao, who now owns Kalye Kitchen, had a background in food when she enrolled in the program last January. Born to a family of chefs, Cailao grew up watching her father work as an executive chef for hotel kitchens in Washington, D.C., and New York City. She initially pursued interior design, transferring to the University of the Incarnate Word before finishing her degree in design.
However, when she moved to Texas, Cailao realized she wanted to return to her culinary roots. She worked for multiple restaurants—first in the front of house and then in the kitchen—and also was part of the initial graduating class at the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio. She went on to work as a caterer and worked in kitchens at influential eateries like Rebelle, Kimura and O’liva.
But even with all that experience, she says she still needed guidance when she decided last year to start her own business. “The whole time I’ve been a chef I’ve been collecting information on business, so I thought I knew all this stuff,” she says. “But there’s so much you don’t even think of until you’re in the middle of the paperwork.”
Break Fast & Launch mentors like Jody Bailey Newman, of The Friendly Spot and other restaurants, and Jeret Pena, of The Brooklynite and other bars, answered her “nitpicky questions,” and discussed common issues and experiences that can seem overwhelming to new entrepreneurs.
Cailao began small by booking catering jobs throughout the country and hosting weekly Thursday pop-ups outside of Park Social. She recently purchased a food truck, which parks near Thai Lao Orchid on Broadway, and offers a modern approach to classic Southeast Asian dishes like scalloped ceviche and dumplings. Her business might have gotten off the ground without Break Fast & Launch, she says, but she feels much more confident in its future success because she completed the program. “The experience reminded me how helpful and supportive the food scene is in San Antonio, it’s not like New York or D.C.—places that have a crowd mentality,” she says. “It’s a family.”
Even within the accelerator, a tight-knit community has formed. Graduates like Chef Stephen Paprocki, of Black Gold Garlic; Hitish Nathani, of Bombay Salsa Co.; and Silvia Alcaraz, of Cocina Heritage, collaborate on projects and share gig opportunities when they can.
Salts says that’s the goal. By helping culinary startups succeed, they’re also helping create community in San Antonio’s burgeoning culinary scene. “I think the old notion in business was, ‘Well if the guys across the street are making money, they’re taking away from me,’” says Salts. “But the truth is that you succeed together.”
This article appears in the August 2016 issue of San Antonio Magazine