food industry

Robyn Metcalfe


Photo Credit: Food Lab at UT | Daily Texan Staff

The University opened registration Sunday for the UT Food Lab Challenge, an international competition focused on the evolving food industry. 

Sponsored by the University’s Food Lab, the competition is centered on developing food industry startups, Robyn Metcalfe, lab director and human ecology lecturer, said. According to the University, applications will be accepted until Sept. 30, after which 20 finalists will be announced on Nov. 1. After the finalists are chosen, the 20 teams will be paired with mentors, who will provide feedback before the final presentation day on Feb. 14, 2015. Winners in each category will receive $5,000 and one team will receive the grand prize of $10,000.

Metcalfe said she has seen a growth in interest for food startups — especially from festivals like South By Southwest.

Metcalfe sees the competition as an opportunity to focus on the differences between most startups and businesses that are food-related since food is a perishable commodity, often controlled by government regulations.

“We really felt that, although there are common things food startups need to know in general about starting a business, there are some things really specific to food startups,” Metcalfe said. “We thought, first of all, igniting some interest around food startups was really important for that reason, and we can provide that kind of support for that kind of knowledge related to specific food startups.”

Daniel Heron, a UT alumnus who cofounded the Food Lab in 2012 with Metcalfe and still works with food startups at Tech Ranch in Austin, said he thinks the competition is a new opportunity for food entrepreneurs to get involved in the startup community and raise venture capital.

“I think it’s really cool because it’s focused on ‘How do we feed the city?’” Heron said. “It’s focused on the food system and how it refers to feeding urban populations, and that’s a very focused group.”

Metcalfe said that although Austin has numerous startup hubs, the Food Lab offers more tools for food-related entrepreneurial ideas in early development.

“The other thing is the idea came that, although there are numerous incubators and accelerators in Austin, what we can do is support really early stage startups. Those that are simply an idea,” Metcalfe said. “They don’t necessarily even have their long-term team assembled. They may not even have a good financial strategic plan, and we can help with that early stage.”

The competition is not restricted to students or those in Austin, and teams can be made of contestants from different countries.  

Nutrition junior Salima Bhimani said she likes the competition’s different themes — inputs and production, storages and distribution, healthy eating and food education and processing, packaging and safety — because of the flexibility it provides contestants.

“It’s a great way to get different ideas into the food industry,” Bhimani said. “Every individual has his own ideas, so it’s a cool way to acknowledge them.” 


Daniel Dennis and Lee Krassner are business partners for the upcoming food trailer Dock and Roll Diner. The trailer is a 1957 airstream trailer and will open in about three weeks.

Photo Credit: Emilia Harris | Daily Texan Staff

Sparks flew from the vintage, aluminum airstream trailer as workers buffed and polished the aluminum shell. In about three weeks, the trailer will be ready for business, carrying out the vision local entrepreneurs Daniel Dennis and Lee Krassner imagined a month earlier.

Like many before them, Dennis and Krassner, both 26, chose to open a food trailer because the flexible business model offers them an easier opportunity to venture into the food industry. The highlights of their food trailer, Dock and Roll Diner, will be an original bread recipe, a funky retro vibe and mobility.

“There is a lot less overhead than a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a lot less risk,” Krassner said.

Krassner, a former chef, had the idea in January when he was living in New York and originally planned to open a food trailer in the Hamptons with another friend. Realizing the venture was not for him, Krassner reworked his original idea and presented it to Dennis, a fitness center manager, to create a trailer in Austin. They decided to move forward with it together and put their plan in motion.

The mobility of the food trailer opens it up to many possibilities, providing the ability to take the business wherever there are new opportunities, Krassner explained. The rough start-up cost for a trailer in Austin, Dennis added, is about $35,000; substantially less than starting a restaurant.

They wanted the trailer to have a real vintage feel, but still hold a fresh, unique vibe. They purchased a rare 1957 airstream trailer from a collector; one of only 300 made in that particular model. The trailer is already retro, but the stripped walls inside give it an industrial quality not normally found in food trailers. Krassner said they aren’t just looking for a box on wheels to serve food in.

They believe the trailer itself is as vital to the business as the partners themselves.

“There are really three partners in this venture,” Dennis said. “Lee, myself and the trailer.”

After finding the right trailer, the next step was to complete retrofitting. Krassner said he was lucky to acquire the services of the guys who outfitted Hey Cupcake! trailers. Renovation of the food trailer includes stripping down all the interior’s many layers of paint, installing kitchen appliances and re-buffing the exterior.

Making sure the trailer is ready for their opening day in mid-July is a top priority, Dennis said, but he doesn’t want to rush the process just to meet a deadline. It is better to take the time to make careful decisions and avoid shortcuts than to finish faster and run into problems down the line, he said.

“You can always go back and fix things,” Dennis said. “But we want to do it one time and do it right.”

While the trailer is under renovations, Dennis and Krassner have been using the time to develop their menu, handle the legal work and find a location. They set up a limited liability company, and once the trailer renovations are complete, it will have to be inspected by the health department. They will also need to take a food handler permit test.

The trailer’s name, Dock and Roll Diner, plays on the concept that the duo are able to dock at any location, provide great food and, if necessary, roll out, Krassner said. The menu, which they are keeping under wraps until the opening, will be based around a bread roll recipe that the two originally created.

For their first location, Dennis and Krassner have settled on a spot in the Westlake area, though they hope to eventually cultivate a rotation of locations. They chose the area because they felt it was a relatively untapped location, leaving opportunity for growth.

Dennis said this is reflective of the food trailer industry itself.

“Although the market has become much more saturated with food trailers in the past few years, it’s still growing,” Dennis said.

With food trailers becoming less of a novelty and more of a business model, Dennis said he and Krassner will have to find other ways to set themselves apart.

“We have our concept,” Krassner said. “But it’s about constant revision and tweaking, finding more and more what we have to offer.”

They say unique and quality food, combined with a willingness to lean and take customer input will be their keys to success.

“We work 27 hours a day on our business,” Krassner said. “We’re always finding new ways to improve and our minds never really shut off.”