It is tacit knowledge among Badgers that our state plays a critical role in food production and Wisconsin products are likely to be found in refrigerators across the country. Even those who have never set foot in the state are generally aware that Wisconsin is a titan of our nation’s agricultural sector. As a result, Wisconsinites are fortunate to have an abundance of local options at the grocery store. For restauranteurs and institutional food buyers, however, the sourcing process for local ingredients can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Wisconsin School of Business entrepreneurship alum Ben Winters and his business partner and co-founder Jake Levitt identified this challenge as a business opportunity and out of their collaboration FoodChain emerged.
“We saw the need for it when we did our research and saw how small farmers were going out of business and the hurdles with food travel distance in the U.S. That, coupled with my own experiences in Wisconsin — take the farmer’s market, for example, and how impactful that is – led us to see an opportunity” Ben explained.
A couple grants from Tulane University (Jake’s alma mater) and the assistance lent to them by a local business accelerator allowed FoodChain to materialize. From there, the team went on to connect with Madison’s Discovery to Product (D2P) program before arriving at the gBETA accelerator.
As co-founder and chief operating officer, Ben’s responsibilities include managing all operational and strategic growth strategies, as well as marketing deployments. Additionally, gathering customer insights has fallen on him and that has meant numerous trips speaking with restauranteurs, chefs, and farmers to understand what problems his product would need to solve in order to gain traction with the target userbase.
As an undergraduate student, Ben participated in a study abroad program through UW-Madison at the University of Amsterdam. While he looks back on his experience warmly as one of the highlights of his time in school, he candidly shares that it was more rigorous than he expected. Because Amsterdam is such a hub for international students around Europe, cultural and language differences were readily apparent and could occasionally complicate his team’s collaborations. “It was a real learning experience [for me] because a lot of the projects I was working on weren’t with other UW students. It was me, some kids from the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, and we were having to overcome the differences in our understanding of [business] concepts when brainstorming.”
Back in Madison, Ben continued to have enriching learning experiences as a marketing and entrepreneurship double major. He praised his marketing classes with Mike Judge, who is the Director of the Center for Brand and Product Management, as well as Jon Eckhardt’s Venture Creation course, where students are given creative license to develop and launch a product under the professor’s guidance. Ben also found he took away many lessons from Sarada’s Entrepreneurial Growth Strategies course, citing it as being impactful at illustrating how and why different types of companies apply different strategies to develop.
Though he recognizes the importance of grades, Ben sees the lasting value of an education as the experiences one takes from them. “Anyone can go through [the motions] and complete their classes and graduate, but if you’re really engaged and focusing on grasping the content, that’s going to be a lot more powerful than acing a test.”