These firms are bite-sizing

These firms are bite-sizing

A profitable feast: Food-related entrepreneurs are turning the Bay Area into a free range of innovation, and their customers are eating it up.

Bibby Gignilliat hovered behind a group of Financial District employees who were hurriedly trying to stuff cheese, red peppers and garlic into raw boneless chicken breasts. "You guys have 25 minutes!" she called out. "Twenty-five minutes!"

"Oh my God!" exhaled one employee, slapping the stuffed breasts into a grill pan.

Gignilliat smiled, knowing from experience that the countertop chaos would gel into a delicious meal.

Gignilliat runs a company called Parties That Cook. It provides corporate team-building events based on cooking, such as the "Iron Chef"-style competition she was overseeing last week for a group from Barclays Global Investors.

A cooking school graduate, she could have parlayed her passion into a traditional food-related business such as a restaurant, a catering firm or a specialty food company.

But Gignilliat is one of a growing number of gourmet entrepreneurs who have stepped off the beaten path and created more unusual food-focused businesses.

A cheese-tasting school. A business that cooks a gourmet dinner in your home while giving you a private massage. Companies that provide healthy lunches to schools and child care centers. Companies that lead walking tours of farmers' markets, ethnic eating places and artisan bakeries.

"This is a really, really wide-open city for more (food) experiences," said Lisa Rogovin, a former advertising saleswoman who recently started a business called In the Kitchen With Lisa that gives tours of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. "Every day something new is popping up on the artisan side or chef side. It's gotten so much bigger than selling a product or cooking a meal."

No one tracks the number of offbeat food-related businesses in the Bay Area or elsewhere.

But industry experts say that such enterprises are on the rise - part of a heightened national fascination with gourmet food that has been spurred by the Food Network and the phenomenon of celebrity chefs.

"With the advent of the Food Network, everyone wants to be a food critic, and interest in food is at an all-time high," said Louise Dawson, owner of Five Star Restaurant Consultants in San Francisco. "Any kind of business that is educating a very hungry-for-knowledge public is on the upswing."

At the same time, the Bay Area has unique qualities that make it particularly fertile ground for unusual food-related enterprises.

San Francisco's long history as a tourist destination laid the groundwork with a plethora of restaurants and chefs. The proximity of Napa Valley and other winemaking regions fostered a community of wine and food lovers. Over the past two decades, Alice Waters and other socially conscious restaurateurs drew people's attention to how food is produced.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's thriving technology industry has given many people unprecedented disposable income to spend on gourmet-related services. It also gave them the entrepreneurial skills and savvy to experiment with new business models.

"The Bay Area is wonderful for startup businesses since people are really open-minded about startups," said Lesley Kohn, a former high-tech manager who co-owns Chefables, a Corte Madera firm that delivers hot meals such as "Mac & cheese with toasted quinoa" to schools and child care centers.

"People here are great about food. They love to try new things. But that also makes it hard sometimes, keeping everyone happy, because people have high standards."

Some offbeat food entrepreneurs come from traditional culinary backgrounds, with restaurant experience or culinary school training.

Stephen Gibbs, for instance, graduated from the California Culinary Academy and worked as a chef at Postrio, Stars and La Folie. But Gibbs had been an actor before becoming a chef, and missed the interaction with an audience.

So he and his life partner, Molly Fuller, started a business that, like Gignilliat's, provides cooking parties and team-building events.

"Stephen has this interest in teaching people about food, sharing his experience, and sharing with people the joy of cooking," said Fuller, whose company is called Hands On Gourmet.

By contrast, other "foodie" entrepreneurs had completely unrelated professional backgrounds before starting their businesses.

Richard Festen was a biochemist when he decided to pursue his childhood passion for cooking. He enrolled in the Culinary Academy and in 2003 started a business called BakingArts, which provides individual and group instruction in baking.

"There's some amount of fantasy in making these baked goods - these amazing, fantastical things out of sugar," Festen said.

Meanwhile Sara Vivenzio left a career in advertising in New York to work in a San Francisco cheese store and, in 2006, opened the Cheese School of San Francisco. She now offers classes in cheese tasting several times a week.

"It's ton of fun," Vivenzio said. "I am ridiculously crazy about cheese. To demystify cheese is really my reward."

While a few businesses such as Parties That Cook and Hands On Gourmet are direct competitors, most tend to see each other as partners in a crusade to spread the gospel of good food.

Gignilliat, for instance, is co-sponsoring a cheese- and chocolate-tasting class next weekend with the Cheese School and with a business called the Art of Tasting Chocolate.

And Shirley Fong-Torres - whose Wok Wiz walking tours of Chinatown food, history and culture have been around since the 1980s - welcomes newer food tours such as Local Tastes of the City, which leads walking tours of North Beach and Chinatown.

"The more, the better," Fong-Torres said. "The only thing I hope is they have the same passion I had from Day One, that they're not just doing it for the money."

One question about the growing number of offbeat food-related businesses is whether they will ultimately survive.

Many are still young and struggling one-person operations. In some cases, idealistic foodies are having to teach themselves details of marketing, budgeting and business planning.

Tom Medin began Local Tastes of the City tours in 2004, providing behind-the-scene views of coffee roasting at Caffe Roma, truffle making at XOX Truffles and focaccia baking at the Liguria Bakery. With no employees, he leads every tour himself and has had a steep learning curve.

"The first year, if I got three hours of sleep a night, I was really lucky," Medin said. "The second year, I got certain things in place. Now we've reached break even and are paying debts off."

Meanwhile, Juliette Jacques remains far from break-even with her fledgling venture, a Moraga business called Table of Dreams that provides a gourmet dinner and personal massage in a client's home.

Jacques - a longtime massage therapist who contracts with professional chefs to cook the dinners - would need about 10 Table of Dreams clients per month to break even. But when she started the business early this year, she was getting only one booking every other month.

Jacques enrolled in a class about how to run a business through a nonprofit called the Women's Initiative for Self-Employment. But for now, she still relies on her regular massage practice to make ends meet.

"Everyone who tries Table of Dreams is excited and says, 'I'll tell my friends,' but then maybe they forget," she said.

Only time will tell if food-related startups like Jacques are part of a permanent trend, or just a passing fad.

If the Barclays Global Investors employees are any indicator, though, food-related events are here to stay.

The Barclays group had done other kinds of team-building activities in the past, including go-cart races and a scavenger hunt with global positioning devices. But Gignilliat's cooking contest got top reviews - even from employees who rarely cook at home.

"It was great," said Barclays employee Jim Lewis, chatting with a colleague and finishing the dessert they had made, a warm Scharffenberger chocolate souffle cake with salted caramel sauce. "It's more inclusive. Everyone can do food. Everyone eats."

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