Digital ad agency Razorfish played a major role in the founding of New York City’s tech scene in the 1990s. The teamhas often been creditedwith creating the world’s very first banner ad, paving the way for digital advertising to become what it is today.
But when it became clear in the late ’90s that the tech bubble was about to burst, Razorfish cofounder Craig Kanarick began to consider other options. He had nurtured a love of food for most of his life, but he had never pursued it professionally. The Razorfish offices happened to be across the street from the French Culinary Institute.
“When I was sitting there having to think about cutting staff and doing all the things you don’t like to do when businesses go bad, I would stare out the window and see people coming out of the Culinary Institute and think to myself, ‘I would way rather be taking a break from learning how to make soup or something than thinking about all of the lives I’m going to ruin by laying them off,'” Kanarick said to Business Insider.
What he came up with was Mouth, a Brooklyn-based website that curates food products from independent makers across the country. From maple bacon lollipops to pickled string beans, Mouth’s products aren’t things you’d find at a typical grocery store.
He teamed up with Sam Murray, a veteran in the plastics industry, and Nancy Kruger Cohen, an art director who had done work with ESPN Magazine and Details, and launched the company in April 2012. Last November, it received $US1.5 million in funding from Vocap Ventures, VegasTechFund, and angel investors Joanne Wilson and Jason Calacanis.
“This is an opportunity for me to combine a good 10 to 15 years of digital expertise with this pervasive love of food,” he said.
Independent makers send samples of their products to Mouth with the hope they will be selected to be carried on the site. Each Friday, the team at Mouth holds a tasting where they sample all of the products they have received recently.
We visited Mouth’s headquarters in DUMBO, Brooklyn during a tasting to get a sense of what this startup is all about.
Mouth curates food from independent artisans around the U.S., selling hundreds of their products on its website. The company then ships goods to consumers in boxes like the ones decorating its office.
The team receives dozens of pitches from artisans across the country. If they're interested, they give the go-ahead for the makers to send samples of their products. Every Friday morning, Kanarick leads a tasting session.
The team will often receive several products from the same makers, giving them the chance to try them all and then choose what they like best. That means they could be trying four different varieties of shortbread cookies, for example.
When the team is deciding which products they want to carry on their site, they try to focus on the way each one tastes. The packaging is definitely important, though -- they're looking for products that appear unique, interesting, and different from products already carried in major grocery stores. 'We don't do blind taste tests because our customers aren't doing blind taste tests,' Kanarick said. 'We want to experience it the way they do.'
Cofounder and chief creative officer Nancy Kruger Cohen is responsible for most of the food styling and directing of photo shoots. Mouth does all of its photography in-house.
The idea behind their food styling is that it's much more appealing to show a product as it's supposed to be enjoyed, as opposed to a grocery store where the food is hidden behind packaging.
Social media manager Rachael Stuart tried out a cookie while merchandising and special projects manager China Millman looked on. Many of Mouth's staff members come from a background in food -- Millman, for example, was previously a noted restaurant critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
After he left Razorfish, Kanarick considered going to culinary school. But after running into Mario Batali -- he had met the legendary chef earlier in his career -- he ended up going to work at Batali's restaurant, Babbo, instead. 'He told me not to go to culinary school and instead to come in and do an internship for free. I told him, 'I can't even get a reservation at Babbo, let alone work there.'' He ended up working there for nine months.
Mouth continues to grow rapidly. The company just signed a five-year lease on a warehouse across the street from its offices in DUMBO, where it will catalogue all of the products carried on the site.
The company now carries more than 1,000 products from approximately 700 makers across the U.S. Its goal is to eventually carry at least one product from each of the 50 states, and it's getting pretty close.
The opportunity to help small food businesses get exposure to a larger market was attractive to Kanarick. 'I've always been not only an entrepreneur, but also someone who helps entrepreneurs,' he said.
This jam comes from Southern California-based Lemon Bird Preserves. Its ingredients -- kumquats, chocolate, coffee, and lemon slices -- are certainly unique.
In addition to individual products and packaged gifts, Mouth also sells monthly subscriptions. If you love pickles, you could pay to have packages from Mouth-curated makers delivered to you every month. Subscriptions can be purchased for 3, 6, 9, or 12 months.
The 'Snacks Every Month' subscription is another option. Each month you'll get something different -- one month it could be pistachio caramel corn, while the next it could be beer and pretzel nuggets.
'There are thousands of independent producers off on their own fighting the good fight and producing amazing food,' Kanarick said. 'We don't need to import products when there's already so much good food here.'
Mouth also just opened a spirits store around the corner from their office in DUMBO. Similar to the food they feature online, the store focuses on independent producers. Karanick said he focused on spirits because it's an industry that's on the cusp of innovation. 'The idea that there would be so many different kinds of gin, just to name one, would be unthinkable 10 years ago,' he said.
Kanarick is also a bit of an artist -- some of the design work he did for Razorfish is in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, and he's collected and photographed candy for years. This piece, on display at Mouth's spirits store, is an up-close photo of Japanese candy.
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