From Brewing to Chewing
Granola bars made from spent grain win the city's zero-waste pitch competition
When your favorite watering hole lacks a kitchen or resident food truck, your snack options are generally limited: Grab a handful of stale pretzels, or send a buddy on a taco run. But this spring you'll have another option at select establishments: Brewnola Bars, made primarily from spent grain, a byproduct of the beer-brewing process. With flavors including salsa, wasabi, and peanut butter, the baked bars are vegan and packaged in compostable materials. And they'll keep 45,000 pounds of material a month out of the landfill.
The bars, the brainchild of three University of Texas MBA students, took first place – and a $10,000 prize – at the city's inaugural [Re]Verse Pitch Competition, held Dec. 9. A joint effort of the city of Austin, UT's RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, Impact Hub Austin, and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, the contest was built on the idea that materials currently being landfilled can become the basis of successful social enterprises.
The "reverse" in the name derives from the fact that in phase one, held Nov. 3, producers (such as brewery Hops & Grain) pitched their products to prospective entrepreneurs, rather than entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas. Over the next four weeks, entrepreneurs developed their concepts under the tutelage of experienced design, logistics, and business mentors.
The closing event last week saw eight finalists make their pitches to a judging panel of investors and lenders with expertise in social entrepreneurship, as well as about 80 members of the public. The concepts included commuter bags made from upcycled vinyl banners, a building materials depository that would also serve as a materials broker, and a glass recycling business (pitched by three Crockett High School students). Entrants were judged on their venture's viability, scalability, sustainability, and economic and social impact – including their ability to create jobs for the hard-to-employ.
The principle that one company's byproducts can be another's raw materials is the driver behind the Austin Materials Marketplace, a matchmaking service for materials coordinated by the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development and Ecology Action. Participants post in the AMM online database about materials they'd like to rehome, or materials they're seeking. The project team takes an active role in facilitating exchanges, but the pitch competition was meant to draw in a wider audience of entrepreneurs. "It was a way to open the lid of these Dumpsters and show the community what's being thrown away," says Natalie Betts, the city's Recycling Economic Development liaison, who coordinated the event. "These materials have great potential, and if people knew they were available, they might come up with something to do with them."
Those Dumpsters are pretty full. Among the other pitches: Goodwill Industries of Central Texas collects 80 pounds of wicker baskets per day that it cannot sell or recycle. Because Recycled Reads, the Austin Public Library's used bookstore, can't sell or recycle all the audio and video tapes the public donates, 2,000 to 3,500 per month are piling up in storage. Travis County would like to find an alternative to landfilling the 630 pairs per month of discarded Croc-style waterproof clogs worn by inmates in the county correctional institutions.
Brewnola Bars co-founder Ceschino Brooks de Vita told the judges the product solves problems for three constituencies: consumers who want a healthier alternative to bar food; kitchenless bars, who are losing hungry patrons; and brewers, who need an environmentally friendly way to dispose of spent grain. Co-founder Brandon Ward says his team, which also includes Matt Miller, will use the prize money to pay for a run of several thousand bars through a contract packer, a food manufacturer that produces packaged food products for companies that don't have their own equipment. This will let them place the bars in the bars and solicit feedback on the flavor, size, and price, currently estimated at $2. The ultimate goal is to establish a local manufacturing operation; the team projected Brewnola Bars would be profitable by the second year and could hire roughly 16 full-time employees at $24 per hour.
Will Austinites choose to eat a granola bar while they imbibe? "That's why we want to position it as coming from the beer-making process," Ward says, noting that the bar itself doesn't taste like beer. Two of the flavors are savory or salty, which Ward says pair well with a pint. "That's why there are always peanuts or pretzels in front of you, but those things are kind of boring, so we want to provide an additional type of food offering."
He points to the more than 20 breweries in the Austin area, and 4,000 nationwide – all of them producing spent grain – as evidence of the company's scalability. "I was prepared to go forward even if we didn't win," he says. "The opportunity is there."