SAN FRANCISCO — Cauliflower-based pizza dough. Chocolate-covered quinoa. Bagel balls stuffed with flavored cream cheese. Vegan, paleo, dairy-free frozen dessert that is a bit hard to describe other than to say it is not ice cream.
Nothing says American ingenuity like the eager food entrepreneurs who think their scrumptious concoctions can make it in a culinary landscape that favors big corporations. Earlier this week, 1,400 exhibitors set up shop at the Winter Fancy Food Show in the cavernous Moscone Center here, including some mom-and-pop operations determined to defy the odds.
“It’s possible we do fail,” said Rachel Geicke, 25, who was there with her business partner, Mariana Ferreira, 22, peddling their non-ice cream, Snow Monkey. The product, which comes in two flavors, cacao and goji berry, came to market eight weeks ago — with vast ambitions.
Snow Monkey “is a vehicle to spark change,” said Ms. Geicke, who met Ms. Ferreira when they were undergraduates at Boston University. They describe their fruit-based creation as a “superfood ice treat, ice cream so good you can have it for breakfast.”
As they spooned out samples of Snow Monkey last weekend, one fan jumped and fist-pumped her approval. Now, they only need 100,000 more customers like her.
“The conventional wisdom would be that up to 90 percent of new packaged food products fail,” said David Sprinkle, research director of MarketResearch.com and publisher of Packaged Facts. For established brands, he said, the rate is much lower.
But building your own food business can mean being your own boss, selling something tasty and never having to sit at a corporate cubicle again — a draw for people in many fields.
In one part of the convention center, crowds were clotting at the Bantam Bagels booth, where the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Elyse Oleksak were handing out their ping-pong ball-size toasted bagel balls. The flavors include cinnamon bun, French toast and classic onion.
Their bagels have that all-important ingredient: authenticity. They are made in Brooklyn with New York City water. “We are trying to be the authentic New York bagel in a different way,” as Mr. Oleksak put it.
Before they were bagel mavens, Elyse worked in asset management at Morgan Stanley, and Nick was a credit broker for GFI Group, which operates trading marketplaces. The recession convinced them it was time to take control of their own destiny.
For four months the Oleksaks, who knew nothing about baking, made bagels nightly, letting the dough rise in the darkened laundry closet of their Park Slope apartment.
They appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and in The Wall Street Journal even before they opened their shop on Bleecker Street. “I think it’s because no one had done something exciting with the bagel,” Ms. Oleksak said. (Clearly, she was excluding chocolate-chip bagels, rainbow bagels and other food felonies.)
While they seem to be the golden couple, they have made big mistakes. In 2014, they brought their frozen packages to market. “Everything we did was wrong,” Ms. Oleksak said. For example, rather than paying a professional photographer for help with their packaging, they used photos taken with their cellphones, which failed to show the filling inside the bagel ball.
Every success seemed to bring its own complication. When they made a big splash on “Shark Tank” in 2015, their website crashed. Lori Greiner, the shark who invested in their concept, tweeted to her one million fans to hold on until the website was restored. “We learn as we do,” Ms. Oleksak said. Six months ago, they reintroduced their bagels to supermarkets; now their bagel balls are in 2,000 stores and 7,500 Starbucks.
Listening to these entrepreneurs, they almost sound like politicians. They speak about “authenticity,” “honesty” and “transparency.”
That message came across in Carol Healy’s No-Bake Cookie Co. booth, designed by her husband, Tom, to resemble a 1950s kitchen. Ms. Healy’s cookies — in flavors like chocolate mint, peanut butter and coconut macadamia — are made from her grandmother’s recipes. She sold them at her family’s market at a gas station in Bend, Ore., before deciding to turn the cookies into a family business.
The idea of controlling their own destiny appealed to their son and daughter-in-law, who quit their day jobs. Four months ago, Eric Healy was a mechanical engineer who worked at Boeing and other companies; now he is the chief operating officer of No-Bake Cookie. And that young woman handing out samples at the food show in a red-and-white-checked dress and white apron, to resemble the 1950s housewife? That is Eric’s wife, Regina Organo, who was until recently a molecular biologist at Genentech. She is now chief of quality control and is thinking of calling herself vice president of operations.
The family is cordial with all comers, but when two representatives of Albertsons appeared at her booth, Ms. Healy excused herself with alacrity, pivoting midsentence to address potential customers.
Seven years ago, the family built a factory in Bend to make what they call “the only branded natural no-bake cookie out there.” Their gluten-free cookie tastes like old-fashioned soft fudge, transmitting the message that it is pure, honest and good. It has no four-syllable ingredients.
Not all efforts have succeeded. Early on, the Healys agreed to pay $1,000 and deliver 850 gift boxes to Off the Wall Gifts, a provider of “celebrity gifting” for Emmy Award nominees in the news and documentary category. It was good exposure, they said, but the payoff was minimal for the money they put up.
Last month, Ms. Healy was told by Sprouts Farmers Market, a natural and organic supermarket chain, that it was dropping No-Bake Cookies to invest in its own product.
The Healys remain upset. “We’re the little guy,” Mr. Healy said.
They spread the little-guy message on social media. On Instagram, they post pictures of people enjoying their cookies, including one of an adorable blue-eyed boy (a relative, naturally).
Today, their cookies are sold in 4,000 stores, twice the number of a year ago.
As for the Snow Monkey team, Ms. Geicke and Ms. Ferreira are a start-up, working out of their Santa Monica apartment (where they moved, they said, because lots of trends start there) and not taking salaries. Their sole employee, Katie Krell, whose title is “director of impact and partnerships,” explained, “We are movement-driven — what you eat can be how you live.”
Snow Monkey is vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, non-G. M. O. and paleo. Ingredients include banana, water, apple purée, pure maple syrup, acacia tree gum and hemp seed powder.
Ms. Geicke, who was an N.C.A.A. Division 1 rower, and Ms. Ferreira, who was a college triathlete, were undergraduates when they looked for ice cream-like food that was healthy and tasty. When they could not find it, they began experimenting.
Their non-ice cream has 99 calories in a half-cup — and it is no Chunky Monkey. But their cacao flavor is so good that I did not ask for a second helping only because that was beyond my reportorial duties.
They won $21,000 in grants from Boston University, and, in early 2016, it took them only four days to meet their $20,000 Kickstarter goal.
They also have stumbled. Their original eight-ounce pods of Snow Monkey in clear containers were cute, but hard to mass produce. Snow Monkey now comes in traditional round pints. People who contributed $35 or more on Kickstarter received a delivery of Snow Monkey as a thank you, but the company lost money delivering to a backer in Hawaii.
In December, the partners learned the factory where early batches of their food were made had an outbreak of listeria. Although none was detected in their product, they voluntarily recalled it, because, as Ms. Geicke said, they wanted to “err on the side of caution” and be “transparent.” They said they are now using a different factory.
For now, Snow Monkey is sold in Southern California, and next month the founders plan to introduce it online.
“There’s a stigma that anything that’s healthy is going to taste like cardboard,” Ms. Geicke said. “We want to show people that nutritious can be delicious.”