From bytes to bites: The Public applies Startup Edmonton playbook to food

· The Pulse

Startup Edmonton co-founder Ken Bautista finds himself in "founder-entrepreneur mode" again with The Public Food Hub, a startup that connects food lovers to food makers.

"I've always been really interested in place and community and entrepreneurship and technology," he told Faaiza Ramji on Episode 12 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast about innovation in Edmonton.

Tech-focused startups work in bits and bytes, however, which are a lot more scalable and transmissible than the kind of bites he's working in now. "You can't beam food over the internet," he said. "You need to be able to experience it."

When Bautista started The Public in 2020 with Kirsta Franke of the 124 Street Grand Market and Tim Hengel, formerly of Booster Juice, the idea was to create "Startup Edmonton but for food brands," Bautista said. They soon realized there are already a lot of physical spaces in which makers can get started, whether it be food incubators, food halls, or ghost kitchens.

The opportunity for The Public was to develop a customer base for those food brands. And that involves bringing the food to the people, whether it be through neighbourhood drops, culinary experiences, subscription boxes, or markets.

Being part of the first cohort of 500 Global's Alberta Accelerator helped The Public's co-founders sharpen their focus on the customer side of the equation, Bautista said.

"We really leaned into 'How do we focus on the food lover side?' because if we open that up, that's going to immediately create even more value for all of the food makers that we work with."

Other kinds of creators can find their customers through Twitch or Patreon or Etsy. "In food, it can be a really complicated path to reach that customer wherever they are," Bautista said. "But if you think of it as a stack of technology — here's all the tools I need to be able to get to create what I do and then sell it to that customer who may or may not be in my own backyard — what does that start to look like?"

Ken Bautista speaks into a microphone in front of signs for TEDxEdmonton

Ken Bautista speaks at TEDxEdmonton in 2010, about a year after he co-founded Startup Edmonton, which has provided a bit of a blueprint for his latest venture, The Public Food Hub. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Enabling its 400 or so food brands to think that big is helping The Public think big, too.

"I don't want to just be a local food company that helps you find local food brands," Bautista said. "We really want to change the way that people are discovering and buying interesting food brands, whether they're super hyperlocal, or a super specialty that someone in Amsterdam is making and they can't get into Canada, for example."

And yet, it's also about making the local experience rich for everyone, wherever they live in the city. To Bautista, businesses like The Public are part of what will make the concept of 15-minute districts work.

"People want all the amenities and all the services close to them," he said. "But the limiting factor in a lot of these neighbourhoods and communities is they don't have access to all the brands. And sometimes people just want to leave their home, too. ... I think people still desire that third place where they can go."

The Public will be providing those "third places" as market season revs up, offering its own experiences and partnering with others to bring interesting food to customers wherever they are, not only in various Edmonton-area neighbourhoods but also in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, and Calgary.

And it will be bringing food makers together, too, building community through meetups. "To me, it's very much a similar playbook to what we did with Startup Edmonton," he said. "That worked in tech, it should for sure work in the world of food. Every community needs food. And every community has interesting local makers that have the potential but are limited by their geography."

Listen to the April 21 episode of Bloom for the whole conversation, covering all of this plus the rise of no-code entrepreneurship, the benefits of global accelerators, and a proposal from Ramji for a collaboration between The Public and her liqueur company, Field Notes.