A love letter to working in food
After graduating with honors degrees in English literature and economics from New York University, Ryan Williams entered Houlihan Lokey, the leading M&A advisor for middle market U.S. consumer, food & retail transactions as a financial analyst before joining Techstars, a startup accelerator and venture capital firm, as an associate.
Ryan now leads finance and special projects for RISE Brewing Co., an organic, award-winning nitro cold brew coffee brand based in New York. On the side, he likes backpacking to all corners of the globe, deep house, helping other food entrepreneurs and long walks through the grocery store.
When I was five, I wanted to be a firefighter. By 12, a tennis player. And at 20, as a junior in college, I hadn’t a clue. So naturally, I went into investment banking.
I learned a lot, slept a little, and was, in true millennial fashion, grateful but unfulfilled. And then we won the engagement for Snack Factory, the company behind Pretzel Crisps.
For the pitch, we covered our boardroom in bags of garlic Parmesan, Buffalo wing, and, my personal favorite, white chocolate peppermint. When the meeting ended and the samples went up for grabs, analysts, associates and admins alike scrambled for the spoils. It looked like a riotous Black Friday sale except with everyone wearing suits.
The founders had created something consumers loved — and that Snyder’s-Lance loved so much, it wrote a check for $340 million.
By 24, I knew I wanted to work in food. And now at 28, I think I’m able to articulate why it’s such a special industry.
Tangible satisfaction - In service industries like consulting and banking, hundreds of hours of work hides in data rooms and spreadsheets. But the moment I pick up a can of RISE nitro cold brew coffee, I can touch, feel, see and taste everything that went into it: sourcing ingredients, designing labels, managing production, onboarding distributors and pitching retailers — all right there in a 7-ounce can. In CPG, the products themselves commemorate all the effort it takes to get them to shelf.
Metaphorical dough - From Bai’s $1.7 billion sale to RXBAR’s $600 million exit, food offers the potential to strike it rich. While money isn’t the motivation, it’s sure a welcome side effect.
Better than a B.A. - In a BevNET interview, Tom First, a co-founder of Nantucket Nectars, describes the industry as “the ultimate liberal arts education.” From finance to sales to manufacturing, contemplate all the interwoven yet distinct competencies required. Food and beverage encourages flexible thinking and presents endless learning opportunities.
Meaning discovered - Cold brew isn’t curing cancer. Instead, I take a step back and consider the three million plus servings of coffee RISE will deliver this year. For every keg tapped and every can popped, a connection forms to someone I’ll never meet in the flesh and yet will encounter via product proxy. There’s something beautiful in that — a little piece of you, shared and spread through the world. While coffee might not cure cancer, it helps keep the doctors awake.
Pure competition - The food industry is capitalism and competition in its finest form. Nimble startups taking on established titans. Leaders of hot new categories vying for attention, then pitting their creativity, sales ability and pricing strategies against one another for zero-sum consumer dollars. While some may fear the intensity of the market, it makes for an exciting day.
True community - This year, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the leaders of the food industry. Everyone has been approachable, generous and encouraging. Moreover, other brands and founders willingly share contacts, tips and, best of all, free samples.
Always evolving - Consumer preferences are shifting towards healthier, all-natural brands. E-commerce is stealing sales from established retailers. Innovative brands like Ripple and Impossible Foods are bringing cutting edge food tech to the masses. These and other macro changes make it a dynamic and exciting time to be in food and beverage.
Relatable - The other day, I saw a post from a well known VC touting their investment in a company “democratizing Ethereum’s Casper proof of stake consensus algorithm.” Food, while victim to buzzy trends like gluten-free, hasn’t succumbed to buzzy jargon. With relatively similar, logical business models, outsiders can easily engage. Whether at the bar or around the dinner table, people find cold brew infinitely more intriguing than EBITDA multiple trends.
I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in life at ages 30, 40 or 50, but I’m confident I’ll remain in food and beverage. While flings may fizzle, loves may be lost and spouses may separate, as Shaw once said, “there is no love sincerer than the love of food.”