Niches in the Food Industry: Seth Syberg, Founder of CocoBurg
On a weekday morning, Seth Syberg and his employees, Maya and Kelli, prepare slices of organic, locally-sourced coconut meat in a commercial kitchen Syberg rents in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. The final product, known as the first raw, vegan, soy- and gluten-free Coconut Jerky, began as Syberg’s experiment with healthy snack and meat alternative recipes. As a former tech executive, cooking was just a hobby for Syberg. Now, the Oakland native and Brooklyn transplant runs his company, CocoBurg, full time. Syberg launched his company with the success of his kickstarter campaign as well as with personal funds he invested. Working between his office and kitchen, Syberg is not only involved in crafting the product by hand but also in the overall management and online marketing. When Syberg isn’t working, he spends his time on competitive cycling.
A self-described health and fitness fanatic, Syberg has experimented with vegan and vegetarian diets for the past 14 years. A few years ago, he decided to try going raw vegan — avoiding consumption of all animal products and foods cooked at a temperature above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. It was during his exploration with plant-based diets that he developed his niche product, Coconut Jerky, in Williamsburg.
“I basically spent all of my time during that summer cooking raw food, or ‘cooking’ raw food,” Syberg said. “I tried every single recipe I could find and one of the recipes I found was a coconut jerky similar to what we ended up making here. It just stuck with me over the years as one of my favorite recipes that I’ve made and also something that really seemed like it should be out in the market.”
As a unique commodity within the food industry, Coconut Jerky would lead the next chapter of Syberg’s life. He had considered the option to turn his business idea into a profitable operation for over three years and decided to execute his plan after receiving an outpouring of support, both online and in person.
“After my last job ended, I decided to switch careers and try out this food business thing,” Syberg said. This seemed like a good place to start. I just played around at home with a bunch of different recipes and started giving them out to people and seeing what kind of response I got. It was overwhelmingly positive. I stepped it up a notch and went for a Kickstarter that was super successful. It all just culminated in what we’re doing today.”
With an entrepreneurial mindset, Syberg was able to transition from working at a start-up to starting his own business. Along with his background in the tech field, Syberg had exposure to one aspect of the food industry at his previous company.
“I worked as the CTO for a local food start up, called Farmer’s Web,” Syberg said. It’s an e-commerce platform for local farms to sell their goods to local restaurants and wholesale buyers. So I already had a foot in the food community, but largely from a tech perspective, so not a lot of context in that way but food’s always been an interest in mind. It was a natural fit. Most of my professional experience has been in tech, tech-related, teaching computer science and IT. A lot of what I did before is applicable in entrepreneurship generally, but I think most of the experience I had at the executive level and working in tech has been the most beneficial to starting my own company.”
On July 15th of this year, Syberg launched the Kickstarter campaign for CocoBurg with a goal of $10,000. His campaign overreached its goal on August 14th with over 500 backers supporting his efforts. Backers received rewards ranging between a package of the company’s original-flavored Coconut Jerky to an entire case including 15 packages depending on the amount they pledge.
The outcome of the campaign was underwhelming, based on estimated statistics of alternative meat consumers, according to Syberg. Overall however, the crowd-sourcing platform provided him with a scope of prospective customers as well as funding that would contribute to his personal investments.
“At the same time, I’m surprised that I didn’t have to do much and it was successful and I’m also sometimes surprised that it didn’t get bigger,” Syberg said. I feel like the vegetarian and alternative meat market is estimated around five million people just in the United States. I would expect something like this to get a lot of attention. It didn’t get that much attention. In some ways it’s a good thing, even with the small amount of attention it got, it still got a lot of backing…At this point, I think it was really useful to gauge some portion of the market and gaining a little bit of start-up capital. If I did it again, I probably would do it differently.”
Syberg faced various challenges in the initial stages of his project, which involved sourcing organic ingredients, finding a suitable kitchen, and handling manufacturing costs. In addition to the difficulties that came with making the physical product, he also learned how much time the process of food production consumes.
“Coming from tech, I expect things to be done very quickly,” Syberg said. In tech, you ask for something from an organization, and they get it to you within 24 hours. It’s very different in this world. Things like getting tests back from a food safety lab, that doesn’t take a day, that doesn’t take two days, it actually ended up taking us over two months…Having to deal with things, that I’ve never really had to face coming from tech — government regulations and food safety and all the things that go with a physical business that’s creating a physical product are very different than what I’ve experienced in the tech world.”
CocoBurg’s Coconut Jerky is currently sold on the company’s website and online stores. Syberg plans to expand CocoBurg in the future by selling the product at retail stores, food cooperatives, and possibly its own store.
“I expect CocoBurg to ramp up production and start getting distributed at retail outlets locally and start to expand out from there,” Syberg said. There are a lot of health food stores across the world would be interested and have already expressed a lot of interest in this product. We’ll always have an online presence as well and a way for people to make online orders. From there, I’m always thinking about product expansion and maybe someday having a CocoBurg store front in Williamsburg somewhere.”