Startup Spotlight: FENIK

Startup Spotlight: FENIK

Originally known as Evaptainers, Fenik started out as a student project at MIT. The team’s goal was to develop a low-cost method for preserving fruits and vegetables in remote areas. Five years and many prototypes later, Fenik recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign and launched production of its Yuma No-Ice Cooler.

While the new product will keep your camping supplies nice and cool, Fenik’s mission is to provide an inexpensive food-preservation solution for people in developing countries who lack access to electricity and refrigeration. We caught up with co-founder Spencer Taylor to hear Fenik’s latest news.

What’s your founding date?

September 2013.

How big is your team?

Five people.

What problem are you solving?

Last-mile food insecurity in arid developing nations.

What’s been the biggest surprise about running your business?

How few true-impact investors actually exist. They are often talked about, but you rarely meet one.

What was the big idea that got you started?

In an MIT class called Development Ventures, on the first day the professor said, “I want you to come up with a good or service that will change the lives of one billion people.”

Whom are you competing with?

Primitive evaporative coolers, such as the Zeer Pot, or draping wet cloth over food to help to preserve it.

The coolest food system innovation I’ve heard of is…

the sheer amount of innovation going on in the food space these days.

The scariest thing about today’s food system is…

the amount of waste that is endemic throughout the cold chain in both developed and developing markets.

What’s your latest big news?

We’re taking delivery of our first production units of the Yuma in January 2019.

Best advice you’ve received?

Hardware is hard.

What advice do you give to potential startup founders?

Start with a problem you have experienced, or one that you deeply understand through others. Assume nothing and validate your approach compulsively as you progress with your client base. Constant course corrections are not the product of inexperience; they are critical to success.

The Yuma No-Ice Cooler assembles easily and needs only water for evaporative cooling. The water is stored in the cooler’s walls and lowers the internal temperature 10-20 degrees — or more in drier environments.

Edible Bugs: More Than Just Protein

Edible Bugs: More Than Just Protein

Flavor notes range from peppery lemon to pine-nutty to prosciutto-savory. Some varieties make for lovely garnishes on your seafood salad, 
while others are perfect as the heart of a well-salsa’d taco.

Some new-ancient legume? The latest grain-based trend? No — I’m talking about edible bugs.

And I’m not the only one. Bug-based recipes are showing up all over Instagram and your favorite cooking magazines. Yet while we in the West are playing catch-up, some cultures around the world have been enjoying arthropods and mealworms for millennia.

If you think about it — with a wide-open mind — bugs aren’t all that different from crustaceans. After all, crayfish (or, crawfish) are known by some in Louisiana as mudbugs. Just as we enjoy the sweet flavor of shrimp and the slight crunch involved in devouring a crab or lobster, eating bugs just takes a bit of practice.

That’s what Aly Moore believes, anyway. Her site ( and beautiful Instagram feed (@bugible) are dedicated to making bugs seem like the white-hot snack trend you’re dying to try. She even does bug-and-wine pairings to highlight the wide variety of flavor notes. And, who knows, maybe the wine helps reduce inhibitions against taking that first bite.

Top: Mealworms and dark chocolate — bugs can satisfy a sweet tooth! Photo by Ashley Corbin-Teich. Bottom: Summer salad with chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and roasted crickets from Entomo Farms.

Bugs Around the World

While eating bugs may be a novel idea for Americans and other Westerners, insects have long been a valuable ingredient in many parts of the world.

grasshoppers (chapulines)

diagram of grasshopper


diagram of ant

crickets served instead of bar nuts

diagram of cricket

South Korea
silkworm pupae

diagram of silkworm pupae

South Africa
mopane worm

diagram of mopane worm

escargot (technically a mollusk, but they do live in the garden)

diagram of snail

“I think people are all really pleasantly surprised,” she says about guests at her bug dinners and wine-and-bug pairing events. “I give people a spiel that does everything from comparing bugs to seafood to describing the tasting notes, and you can see them starting to warm up to the idea. That lightbulb moment is great, when they realize bugs are not at all bad. In fact, they have a familiar flavor.”

Focusing on flavor is a key tactic for Moore — especially in her wine events, where she highlights specific bug flavor notes and pairs a complementary wine. Crickets go nicely with lighter reds like pinot noir, Moore says, while meatier-flavored grubs want a more robust Zinfandel. Scorpions, you might be surprised to learn, have a delicate salmon-y flavor that’s perfect with a zingy sauvignon blanc.

If you’re not ready to take the plunge with a whole roasted tarantula, there are lots of ways to experiment with eating bugs without knowing they’re an ingredient — for example, cricket- flour protein bars or chips are increasingly easy to find in mainstream grocery stores.

But, really, Moore is a fan of highlighting the whole insect in all its glory to help people begin to think of them as a tasty option in their everyday diets.

“Comfort foods” — like pizza topped with meaty grasshoppers (aka chapulines in Oaxaca) or sago grubs, which are known as the bacon of the bug world — “are a great way to help people get over the hurdle,” Moore says. “Making comfort foods that people can relate to helps create positive associations with eating bugs.”

Pinot noir and crickets, a classic combo. Focusing on flavor is a key tactic for Aly Moore — especially in her wine events, where she highlights specific bug flavor notes and pairs a complementary wine.

Ready to start cooking with edible bugs? Check out the “Buy Bugs” link on for resource ideas.


How do you go from crawling to crunchy without the use of toxic pesticides or a dramatic SQUISH? Oh, just chill — the bugs, that is. While many studies concur that bugs’ central nervous systems aren’t complex enough to feel pain, you might worry a bit anyway. A humane and simple way to corral those critters is to refrigerate them. Because they’re cold-blooded, they fall asleep, at which point you can move them to a freezer to ensure they’ll never crawl, jump or fly again.

Side Dish: Fashionable Foods

Side Dish: Fashionable Foods

When trendy foods pop, suppliers and retailers have to be ready — or figure out how to make adjustments fast — to meet demand. In this age of food as social media fodder, we looked into the reality of getting more açaí, seaweed and turmeric on shelves — stat!


Açaí bowls are Instagram shark bait. How can you resist snapping a photo of a beautiful deep-purple smoothie bowl layered with tart red strawberries, fat blueberries and flaky white coconut?

It’s almost unfathomable that just 20 years ago, few Americans had even heard of this tiny Amazonian super fruit. Sambazon co-founder Ryan Black says his açaí company struggled to get people interested in the palm fruit “because they hadn’t ever heard of (açaí) and couldn’t pronounce it.” (It’s AH-SIGH-EE.)

Sambazon’s attempts at açaí education have helped drive açaí to the top, as have the influence of social media word of mouth and a surge for health foods. Get enough people declaring something is good, and their Instafriends will want to try it themselves. As of today, #acaibowl is winning Instagram with 885,608 public posts — while the health food of yesteryear, #avocadotoast, nets only 653,172 posts.

In 2016, more than 300,000 tons of açaí products were sold across the world. By 2026, that number should be above one million tons. To keep up with demand, “we have increased sourcing and production in the last few years,” says Sambazon co-founder Jeremy Black. Sambazon owns a processing facility in the Amazon. They have vertically integrated production to streamline their work and protect the delicate fruit, which needs to be quickly processed because it rots.

For a product that feels very 21st century, the harvesting method remains surprisingly ancient and human. Workers scale the trees, pick the fruit and place it in woven baskets to be moved rapidly downstream to the processing facility. The company has been careful to ensure the sustainability of its açaí business by hiring locals to wild-harvest and hand-pick açaí, as well as to plant new seeds.

So far, there doesn’t seem to be an açaí shortage. But what if demand exceeds expectation, or if açaí bowls become the new favorite of a huge market like China? Can the Amazon handle the future of açaí?

Açaí bowls are winning Instagram — and açaí producers have had to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Photo by Trang Doan from Pexels.
 Watch the low-tech harvesting methods Sambazon uses to pick their purple açaí berries.


“Civil Eats,” the 2014 James Beard Foundation Publication of the Year, calls seaweed “the next big thing in sustainable food.” McCormick Spices identifies furikake as a spice to look out for in its 2018 Flavor Forecast. And the World Bank considers it an ecological product that’s also a problem-solving darling when it comes to feeding Earth’s hungry population.

Seaweed is of course a staple in Asia, where kombu, nori and wakame are consumed daily in soups, seaweed rolls and side dishes. According to the FishStat (2014) Electronic Fisheries Database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly all — 99.4 percent — of the world’s seaweed, is produced in Asia. While Asia has long been seaweed-mad, in the western world nori is suddenly popping up in packaged snacks and in all-American foods you wouldn’t expect, such as popcorn, mayonnaise, smoothies, burgers and hot dogs. Seaweeds are versatile and are produced in many forms to suit many tastes — from a funky fried hijiki tofu burger popular at a New York University student fave called Dojo, to pungent wakame “birthday soup” at L.A. Koreatown’s Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, to Uchi’s clean-cut, nori-wrapped negihama roll in Austin. It’s a far wider array than the leaves of wakame swimming in your Japanese miso soup.

“It is definitely a trend, similar to the recent kale craze,” says Michael Graham, creator of Monterey Bay Seaweeds. “There are flavored nori sheets and seaweed salad in Costco. These are not new products, but they are new vendors, and they are reaching new customers.”

Graham, also a biology professor at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the editor of a seaweed scientific journal, says he receives dozens of emails and calls a month from people who want to know more about seaweed. “I don’t know if the interest will last many years,” Graham says. “But regardless, it’s positive. Seaweed really is all that it is cracked up to be — so good for you, and good for the environment.”

Seaweed farmers are responding to the demand. From 2011 to 2012, the most recent years for which World Bank figures were available, global production of one of the most commonly eaten seaweeds, red nori (the dry, crispy wrappers of your maki rolls), increased by 13.57 percent, or 82,634 wet metric tons. Global production of an even more popular seaweed, wakame, ramped up by 21.94 percent, or 384,973 wet metric tons. Overall, including other seaweeds, global production in 2012 was approximately 3 million tons dry weight, increasing by 9 percent per year.

By 2050, if the World Bank has its way, we’ll be producing 500 million dry tons of seaweed, adding 10 percent to our current food supply. That’s definitely all-you-can-eat maki. To do that, we’ll have to augment seaweed farming by 14 percent per year. And the bank thinks we could do that in only 0.03 percent of the ocean’s surface area. More for less is usually a scam, but seaweed may be the bargain store of the sea.

Seaweed has moved way beyond miso soup greens and sushi roll wrappers. Multiple varieties are showing up all over the world — not just Asia — as snacks such as popcorn, mayonnaise, smoothies, burgers and hot dogs.
Watch Mike Graham excite chefs with his land-based seaweed farm in Monterrey, California. Video by Zagat.


While Americans have just “discovered” golden milk (aka moon milk, golden latte or turmeric tea), its origin is an old Indian drink called haldi doodh. But its new in-demand status as an anti- inflammatory health food means turmeric, an ancient Ayurvedic root, has staked its spot in the mainstream American pantry.

Turmeric has hit the big time financially, shooting up from $2,700 million in 2012 to more than $3,160 million in 2016. By 2021, according to a report on Technavio, the global turmeric market is projected to post a compound annual growth rate of 6 percent (other sources list it as 5.5 percent by 2027).

“Volume is exploding for organic turmeric,” says Kai Stark, commodity manager at Frontier Co-op, a cooperatively owned wholesaler of natural and organic products based in Norway, Iowa. “In the last 10 years, the amount of organic turmeric Frontier Co-op has purchased increased by a factor of 10.” Despite the demand, turmeric farmers are struggling to stay alive, even as golden 
lattes sell for $15 per cup in the United States.

Approximately 80 percent of turmeric is grown in India, both wild and farmed. But the small margins are leaving some Indian farmers high and dry. To fight this turmeric poverty, Frontier Co-op collaborates with an organization called Peermade Development Society. PDS works with marginalized farmers, especially women and poor rural folks, to develop both the land and the farmers’ budgets sustainably.

“In the past, marginal farmers, who have only one to two hectares of land, would sell their commodities to middlemen for a small price, and then middlemen would sell again, taking the entire margin,” Stark says. “PDS Organic Spices came in to eliminate the middlemen and help these farmers sell directly to companies like Frontier Co-op.”

In 2009, as the turmeric craze began to take hold, Frontier supported a PDS program to scale up their farmers’ organic turmeric production. PDS, with Frontier’s help, began trials to grow a variety of turmeric with a higher content of curcumin, the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory in turmeric. Frontier also diversified its organic turmeric supply chain, adding suppliers from Central America.

Sana Javeri Kadri, owner of Diaspora Co., a sustainable, single-origin, direct-trade turmeric company, also cuts out the middleman to bring maximum profits to her turmeric farmer, Mr. Prahbu, in Andhra Pradesh.

Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co. as a small side project but was inundated with high demand from the start. When her first four batches of turmeric sold out within hours, she contacted Mr. Prahbu and asked for everything he had. Her last batch sold out in about six weeks. Between filling 20 to 100 orders a week, she closely manages 12 wholesale accounts, asking buyers for six-month projections so Mr. Prahbu has adequate time to plan.

Javeri Kadris says turmeric is planted between May and June, before monsoon season, when it soaks up all the rain. Harvest happens between January and February, so the timing is important — as are the seeds.

“Find the seeds your grandma was using, before the British showed up,” Javeri Kadri says. “If you don’t protect biodiversity, you end up with the heartiest tomato that will survive the grocery store but doesn’t taste very good. It’s the same with turmeric — we’ve already got this mass-marketed bright yellow turmeric with a mild smell, with no biodiversity or cultural history.” Her explicitly political mission is to preserve pre-colonial biodiversity, create the best-tasting, most diverse array of turmerics and reward turmeric farmers in India while doing it.

Still, we can expect the inevitable when it comes to trends: strange products like turmeric-flavored coffee creamer, croissants and cronuts, and frozen turmeric shakes (despite Ayurvedic wisdom that turmeric should be eaten heated for optimal benefits). Because when a trend takes hold, reason may exit through the pricey gift shop, in the form of a chai golden milk donut that screams, “I <3 turmeric.”

Seaweed and turmeric are just two ingredients that jumped from obscure to must-have in record time. Heavy demand means producers have to be creative to keep up.
Diaspora Co. opened in 2017, but owner Sana Javeri Kadri has seen demand for turmeric skyrocket in the past year.

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

In rural India, dairies may have only one or two cows and the power grid is spotty at best. The chance to improve the supply chain link from producers to distributors in these conditions offered some surprising lessons to an American startup anxious to solve the “milk challenge.”

The verdict was devastating:

“This will never work for us,” our customer said. It had taken three years to develop a solar refrigerator to solve rural India’s milk spoilage problem. But our prototype, which we unveiled in early 2011, was “too big, too expensive and difficult to install.” We were back to square one. I’m not from India, and no one on our early team had a connection to the country. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — we were captivated by the milk challenge in the world’s largest democracy. And the engineer in me thought I could fix it with the right technology. Turns out, I had a lot to learn.

We first heard about the milk problem in 2007. That summer my business partner Sam White and I were in India conducting a market survey for a solar turbine we developed that was designed to generate hot water and electricity for off-grid schools and clinics in rural India. We found ourselves in Bangalore on a Saturday morning with nothing to do. My partner picked up the phone and cold-called the managing director of Bangalore Dairy, one of India’s largest milk producers. A few hours later we had a meeting scheduled. We walked into his office to find him and his team of 14 engineers seated around a large conference table. They politely listened to our solar pitch, but their reaction was similar to what we had seen before: “It sounds interesting, but how does this solve our problem?”

In the case of Bangalore Dairy, their problem was milk spoilage, and our solar technology had nothing to do with milk. The meeting quickly turned into a reverse pitch where the dairy engineers were asking us for help. This is how I learned about India’s dairy supply chain and the milk challenge.

Sorin Grama found an unexpected solution for a simple problem in India: how to keep milk from small dairies from spoiling before it gets to distributors. But the journey was far from simple.


India is a hot, largely vegetarian country that depends on milk for its calories and protein. Milk is used in curries and chai tea and is the product of the (literally) sacred cow. India is the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world. But production in this nation of 1.3 billion people is nothing like the factory farms of the United States.

In India milk is collected from small, individual scattered across the countryside. Each one produces 5 to 10 liters per day — compared to an average output of 6,000 liters in a typical U.S. dairy farm operation. The small amounts of milk produced by individual farmers in remote villages create a massive supply chain challenge for dairy processors who collect the milk, pasteurize it and turn it into finished dairy products sold in major urban areas like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. In a country like India, where nearly 50 percent of the employment is in agriculture, urban prosperity depends heavily on the health and vigor of the rural economy.


In India, cows are held in high esteem in Hinduism, the dominant religion in India. They represent food, fertilizer and economic value. Wandering through traffic, into homes — practically anywhere — cows are privileged members of society. No wonder Grama’s company got the attention of Indian dairy businesses. Keeping cow milk fresh could be sacred business.

Dairy cows must be milked twice per day, but the milk often spoils before it reaches distributors because Indian roads can be hard to navigate. Grama sought to prolong the milk’s viability to improve the production process. Image by: Lance Casey

Indian dairies often have only one or two milk cows — tiny operations compared with U.S. dairies that have thousands of animals. Image by: Lance Casey

Milk is like a river that never stops. Raw milk must be aggregated, transported and processed quickly before it spoils. And it must be done twice a day — morning and evening to coincide with the milking schedule — 365 days per year. For farmers, milk is like liquid gold. Rural households depend on sales of milk for disposable income. Unlike other agricultural crops, milk is a daily harvest, and Indian farmers get paid a good amount for their milk. Up to 60 percent of the price of pasteurized milk sold in urban markets goes to these small dairy farmers.

Chilling milk to 4 degrees Celsius immediately after milking preserves its freshness, prevents spoilage and enables it to be transported once a day instead of twice. Refrigeration at the source could elegantly solve all the problems associated with this distributed production system in a single step. But neither industrial milk refrigeration equipment — widely used in most of the world — nor reliable electricity is generally available in rural India.

Thus, the never-ending schedule and lack of refrigeration means transportation costs are enormous, spoilage rates are high and milk quality is very low. What’s more, only those farmers who can be reached within a five- or six-hour ride can deliver milk to central processing facilities.

Bicycles are often the best mode of transportation in rural India, which can make scaling distribution options difficult.

Children carry milk from the dairy to the village’s collection point.


Enter our solar-powered solution. To address the underlying problem of energy access in villages, I designed a milk chiller powered by solar photovoltaic panels. In the mid-2000s solar technology was sexy — it was coming down in cost and gaining more acceptance. I was passionate about using a renewable, clean form of energy and was determined to make it work. When we mentioned solar to customers and investors, everyone got excited. After all, India is a very sunny place.

After some trial and error, we unveiled our prototype, ready to test it. Unfortunately, on that sunny day in South India in February 2011, my dream of using solar power crashed and burned. The prototype failed to impress our first customer, who had been so interested in our solar solution. He told us that our system was impractical and too expensive for Indian conditions. With that rejection ringing in our ears, we laid off our staff and paused to think about the next steps, if any. After more than three years of work, we were back to square one.

Grama and his business partner met regularly with dairy owners and milk distributors to better understand their needs. They often found that solutions that might work in the developed world didn’t fit in India.

Grama’s solution was a thermal-battery-powered refrigerator that chilled raw milk, preserving it, at the collection point in villages where milk is sourced. The refrigerator’s thermal battery stored energy from the unreliable electric grid in the form of ice, which kept the milk cool until the dairy processors could come to collect it.

But the problem was too big to ignore. What’s more, the customer who rejected the solar system encouraged us continue the effort. Like us, he finally understood that solar was a pipe dream and was willing to continue working with us to find a better solution. The simultaneous rejection and encouragement was effective. With some retrospection, I realized that my passion and bias for solar technology took my focus away from the real problem that needed to be solved.

Most villages in India are already connected to the grid, but the grid is not available around the clock and not always when it’s most needed. This insight led me to a better solution: a battery. If I could store energy from the grid, I could use it during the times when the grid is off.

As it turns out, I had designed a battery for our solar system. I didn’t think much of it because it was just a necessary component to make solar technology work. But it was not just any electrical battery; it was a thermal battery designed specifically for refrigeration. It stores energy in the form of ice and is less expensive and lasts longer than an equivalent electrical battery. With just a few hours of grid power we could run a refrigeration compressor — like the one in your home refrigerator — and make ice. When the grid power is off, the ice chills the milk.

I quickly built a new prototype and tested it — it worked! The simple and inexpensive solution won the day. To solve a big problem in an emerging economy like India’s you often don’t need fancy technologies. You need simple, practical technologies because they’re more affordable and easier to maintain.

The chiller was a simple solution that everyone — including poor and uneducated dairy farmers — could use.


Alas, solving the technology didn’t fix everything. Scaling the technology was a whole new challenge. I moved to Mumbai in 2012 to oversee the commercialization of our milk chiller. Progress was slow. A partnership with a manufacturer in Mumbai fell apart when we realized they were investing in another company that was working on products that would compete with ours. Good suppliers were difficult to find and product quality was inconsistent. We had to be vigilant about every single component that went into our system.

In addition to production challenges, we had trouble creating a market. Dairy processors in India, the potential buyers of our technology, are conservative and slow to change. Fortunately, our outsider status as an American company opened many doors. American-made or -designed products are generally viewed positively in India because they are considered to be higher quality. We got meetings with general managers of all the top dairies in India. Innovation in the dairy sector is not very common, and these executives were intrigued by our technology.

But converting initial sales meetings into actual orders was far more difficult than we expected. Adopting a new refrigeration product and changing a decades-old milk collection process was too daunting for most dairies. Only a few visionary leaders who understood the value of higher quality raw milk would adopt the technology. With much effort in the lab and long hours in the field, we delivered and installed 50 systems by the beginning of 2014.

Suddenly, everything came to a grinding halt. While our first customers were absorbing and evaluating the new system, other potential customers were waiting to see the outcome of these trials. Months went by without new orders. We started to wonder if we had missed the market.

Prabudhev Konana

Design for the Developing World

When doing business in India, Western business models do not always apply, says Prabhudev Konana, professor of supply chain management at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Most Western business models are based on massive economies of scale, but that doesn’t work in India,” Konana explains. “Production is fragmented. Distribution is extremely complicated.”

With thousands of tiny producers — e.g., dairy operations with one or two cows — and a rural road system that’s sometimes passable only by bicycle, India offers a business environment where simplicity and consistency reign supreme. Technology must work seamlessly, every single time; if it doesn’t, people won’t be willing to risk their tiny margins on it.

“How you design things for less educated, economically poor people is an art in itself,” Konana says.


I spent many days in the field observing our systems, talking to our customers and trying to understand what was wrong. Sometimes customers would tell me directly what they didn’t like about our system. But most of the time, I had to observe and listen carefully to the things they didn’t say in order to understand the hidden needs and frustrations. The effort paid off. The design needed a few more tweaks to make the system easier to clean and operate and more energy efficient. After we made these changes, new orders started to come in within weeks.

Grama, at right, spent time learning from iterations that failed before finding the right solution. He sought feedback from his customers at every step in the journey.

Most notably, our very first customer — a charismatic and visionary industry leader who rejected our solar system and challenged me to find a better solution — began to place repeat orders. He became an valuable champion and the largest user of our technology. To date, he has installed more than 250 systems in South India. I owe him a lot of credit for our success: He was tough and friendly at the same time. Tough because he constantly pushed me to reduce costs and friendly because he was always available to lend a hand when I got stuck. I would spend hours with him drawing concepts and calculating economics of different configurations on a whiteboard in his office. I think he saw a genuine effort on my part, and with that I gained his respect, attention and eventually his business.

It has been a long and arduous journey, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned the value of being immersed in the market and the environment where our customers operate. I’ve learned that assumptions need to be frequently checked and adjusted to reality. And I’ve learned that while you might start with a technology looking for a problem to solve, success comes when you actually solve a customer’s problem.

Grama and White talk about their journey with Promethean Power Systems.

Grama’s thermal battery also works to cool a cold storage system for preserving fruits and vegetables.

Rio’s Recipe for the Olympic Games

Rio’s Recipe for the Olympic Games

The usual weather in Rio de Janeiro during winter is somewhere between 71 F and 86 F. Around 9 a.m. in late July, the sun shines strong on the horizon. Rather than enjoying the warm winter weather last year, Romano Fontanive, the executive chef at Sol Ipanema Hotel, was exasperated.

That’s because two weeks before the Olympic Games began last August, he was dealing with a significant schedule change: having to purchase food for the restaurant at 7 a.m. instead of at midnight. The shift had more consequences than simple inconvenience. No air conditioning system can prevent what the heat, sun and long lines of traffic in Rio can do to a lettuce leaf at that time of day.

The chef had to stop buying food during the cooler temperatures of night because the Ceasa Market, the most important food market in the city, which provides 80 percent of everything consumed there, changed its working schedule during the Olympic Games from 12 a.m.–10 a.m. to 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Rio’s city government implemented restrictions for truck circulation during the 30-day event (including the Paralympics). With 800,000 tourists in the city, one of the government’s biggest concerns was to ensure fluid traffic for visitors. Unfortunately, the solution that eased road congestion created a nightmare for the supply chain of food and other goods. “I lose approximately 30 percent of the vegetables I buy every day,” Fontanive said last summer. “Life won’t be easy during the Games.”

Chef Romano Fontanive, executive chef at the Sol Ipanema Hotel in Río, had to make major changes to his food delivery schedule due to transportation rules changes during the Games. Nevertheless, he was optimistic about the Olympics’ success. “We need good news in this country right now,” he said in July 2016.


Ceasa is controlled by the state of Rio de Janeiro and works like a giant farmers’ market: food producers rent stalls to show and sell their products in a 20,000-square-foot hangar. There are 800 companies and 2,000 producers registered. Every day, 3,200 trucks pass through Ceasa’s gates. But between July 19 and Sept. 9 (the lead-up to the Olympic Games through the opening of the Paralympics), moving around the city was harder than ever. The plan to reduce traffic for the Olympics forbade trucks from crossing specific areas at different times of day. In Ipanema, for instance, the prohibition was from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays. Many of the vehicles had to wait at the market’s parking lot until the nightly driving window opened when they could drive back to their farms or transport products ordered by customers in the downtown areas. The regulations affected not only Ceasa, but all food providers. Trucks were only able to move freely from midnight to 6 a.m., which means establishments had to keep their employees waiting during non-commercial hours to receive deliveries. The Supermarket Association of Rio said before the Games that the rules wouldn’t affect product offerings in terms of quantity, but it might affect their prices, since the companies could decide to pass the extra costs along to the customer. The Cargo Transport Federation of Rio estimated that 3,000 companies would be strongly impacted, with losses of around 20 percent.

To prepare for the disruptions, the Sol Ipanema Hotel — located at Ipanema Beach, one of Rio’s postcard views — began organizing for the Olympics in the spring of 2016. “Our occupancy rate is high all year, so it’s not hard to adjust our supply,” said Fontanive at the time. But what did change was the amount of perishable food they bought each day. “We are buying more seafood, fish and vegetables to replace what is spoiled during transport” — 20 percent more, Fontanive said. Despite the turbulence with the food supply chain, the chef hoped for the best.

Farther away from Ipanema, going up to Babilônia Hill, one of Rio’s slums, David Bispo seemed less concerned. Bispo is well known in the city after winning several food contests with recipes inspired by the favela’s cuisine, like a mix of seafood with beans. Since the favela was pacified by Rio’s police force in 2010, the Bar do David has become an exotic destination for tourists. Like the Sol Ipanema, Bar do David relies on Ceasa Market as its main food provider. But unlike Chef Fontanive, Bispo wasn’t worried about the food supply during the Olympics, explaining that one has to dance according to the music to make it work. “It’s the jeitinho brasileiro [the Brazilian way of life]: we make it last minute, but we make it work,” Bispo said in July, referring to both his bar and the city’s planning for the Olympics. He decided to wait and see how the first days of the games went before changing his menu or buying more supplies.

Lexicon Icon


A typically Brazilian method of social navigation where a person may use emotional appeals, family ties, promises, rewards or money to obtain favors or to get an advantage. The expression also comes from the necessity associated with a lack of resources and help. “Jeitinho” comes from the expression dar um jeito, literally, “to find a way.” It implies the use of resources at hand, as well as personal connections and creativity.

One of the largest food markets in all of Latin America, Ceasa covers 7.5 million square feet. Famous for its flower and plant markets, Ceasa serves citizens as well as restaurants and other businesses in Rio. Image by: Luis Barrios


Tourists weren’t the only visitors in Rio last summer. Some 11,000 competitors chasing medals descended on the city, and all of them had to be fed, too. Despite early concerns that the Olympic Village wouldn’t be ready for the thousands of athletes, coaches and trainers when the delegations arrived, the restaurants opened for business. In the Olympic Village, Sapore — a São Paulo-based catering firm that managed food in 12 stadiums during the 2014 Rio World Cup — ran five restaurants with a total combined area equivalent to three soccer fields. They served European, American, Asian and Brazilian specialties 24 hours a day, including pizza, salads, hamburgers, several kinds of pasta, Japanese food, cold sandwiches and some typical Brazilian food, like feijoada (a stew of beans with beef and pork) and coxinha (chopped chicken meat, covered in dough, molded into a shape resembling a chicken leg), with meals also prepared according to Jewish and Islamic specifications. More than 250 tons of food was served per day. That included 100,000 loaves of bread and 3,000 pizzas.

One of the requirements of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB, in the Portuguese initials) during the bidding for caterers was to use as much local food as possible, starting with food produced in Rio, followed by products from the rest of Brazil, then South America and finally internationally. Sapore didn’t have to go that far. All the ingredients in the Olympic Village were procured from Brazilian farms, except for a species of foliage typical of Korean cuisine that is not produced in large quantities in the country.

Ingredients arrived at Sapore’s kitchen all day. Twenty-five heavy-load sealed vehicles transporting food for the Olympic Village received permission to circulate on a different schedule than the one followed by other trucks in the city. “The truckers working with us have authorization to make the deliveries on time,” said Veridiana Corrêa, Sapore’s executive director for the Olympics, last summer. Before disembarking to the kitchen, however, products were taken to Sapore’s Food Quality Center in Duque de Caxias, a nearby city. A team of specialists checked the products according to rules set by Anvisa (Brazil’s authority on health surveillance) and the International Olympic Committee. The suppliers were instructed to send fruits, meat and vegetables already peeled, chopped and ready to cook as a way to reduce waste and facilitate work in the Olympic Village. There, another team was responsible for a final inspection of the ingredients.

Sapore’s Food Quality Center in Duque de Caxias. Before being delivered in the Olympic Village, the food is inspected here.

Technology helped Sapore’s 2,000 employees working in the operation. Computers monitored the temperature of 345 ovens, refrigerators and freezers 24 hours a day. A cloud-based system used cameras in the dining halls to count how many people were in the restaurant and send the kitchen an estimate of the amount of food needed. A digital spreadsheet with previously collected data also helped the chefs calculate how much food should be bought and prepared, according to the number of athletes in the Olympic Village.

All food served was free to the athletes, who could choose from healthy meals, like light sandwiches and salads, or fast food items — a choice that proved vexing for delegations’ nutritionists during past games. (Some teams, like the Australians, brought suitcases with supplements to ensure their competitors keep their diets on track.) In fact, Corrêa said, during the first days of competition, athletes ate a lot more fast food than the company thought they would. But as more events got underway, “the demand for salads and vegetables began to increase as more and more of them started to compete,” Corrêa said. And once those competitions were over, many athletes tossed their strict training regimens. “We don’t have a number of how much fast food was consumed, but I can tell you this: The swimming teams, specially the American team, can eat burgers as I have never seen someone eat before,” Corrêa said.


The plan for feeding the athletes was published in a 37-page document called “A Taste of the Games.” When it was created in 2012, one of the COB’s biggest commitments was using organic ingredients in the Olympic Village and the rest of the buildings. The plan was to encourage the catering companies to participate in an organic food supply program, called Rio Sustainable Food, by making that a distinctive factor during the bidding. With enormous quantities of food served in the Olympic buildings, it made sense to use this as an opportunity to help organic farmers, who usually lack a formal education and money to invest in their business, and often suffer from the competition of bigger and non-organic farms. But in the end, only one of four caterers hired by the COB signed up to participate in the program. The impact was negligible: R$4,000 (about $1,200) during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Another vow was to minimize food waste. Approximately six tons of produce and other ingredients went uneaten every day in the Olympic Village. But their destination was not the trash. Each day during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the excess was transported to Refettorio Gastromotiva, a soup kitchen created by the Italian chef Massimo Bottura (the best chef in the world, according to the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking) and social initiatives in Brazil. The items were ingredients that would have been wasted, such as vegetables considered out of the norm for sale in supermarkets: “We are talking about an ugly tomato, an imperfect zucchini, already mature mangos or flour to make bread,” Bottura explained to the BBC. Bottura and his army of volunteer chefs from all over the world served the extra food from the Olympic Village to the poor people of Rio (2.8 percent of the city’s population live on less than one dollar a day, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). “This is not just a charity; it’s not just about feeding people,” Bottura said in a New York Times article last August. “This is about social inclusion, teaching people about food waste and giving hope to people who have lost all hope.”

Italian Chef Massimo Bottura created the Refettorio Gastromotiva, a large pop-up soup kitchen repurposed food from the Olympic Village into meals for Rio’s poor during the Games. Image by: Angelo Dal Bo

As for Chef Fontanive and David Bispo, they managed to withstand the major logistical hurdles. Bar do David was operating on full capacity during the Olympic Games and the Paralympics. “We had long lines of people at our door on the weekends,” Bispo says. He estimates that the number of clients was up 30 percent during the games. To manage the traffic snarls, he hired two helpers and avoided Ceasa Market altogether. “We decided to buy food in another farmer’s market, farther away,” Bispo says. “It was faster to cross town than to go to Ceasa.”

Fontanive took a different approach. After the first truck regulations were published in mid-July, Fontanive predicted chaos with deliveries. As part of his early planning, he decided to stock all non-perishable items used by the hotel’s restaurant, especially grains and beverages. “I had to reduce my dependence on the delivery trucks,” Fontanive explains. “We had to adapt. It was a very busy time for business, but the city didn’t plan well enough for the business owners.”


“The Olympic Games bring more than the Olympic Games.” The quote, printed on a giant billboard in the middle of Rio de Janeiro in the lead-up to the Games, tried to remind cariocas (the term for Rio natives) why hosting the event would be good for the city. It will leave legacies, it claimed. According to Datafolha Institute, 60 percent of the population was against the Olympics in Rio, because they believed the resources of a country in crisis should be destined to deficient areas like the public health system and schools. During the opening ceremony, though, this pessimism was momentarily forgotten, as the country put on a simple but energetic performance to receive the 207 participating delegations.

But almost six months after the games ended, many of the touted “legacies” are not part of the population’s reality. Many construction projects weren’t finished, and certain plans, like Rio Sustainable Food, weren’t fulfilled. The houses and apartments in the Olympic Village still aren’t being used for social housing programs, as the government planned. Nobody, not even the leaders of those programs, is sure why. The promise of visibility for the city, in the expectation of attracting tourists and investments, also might be compromised with news reports of political corruption, financial crises and violence spreading all over Brazil. Police, firemen and many public employees have not been paid since June 2016, and the unemployment is 11 percent and rising. Even Rio’s other well-known splashy events are being scaled back: the 2016 New Year’s Eve party was the smallest in 10 years because of a budget shortfall.

As of December 2016, food-related expenses of the Olympics were still not quantified by Brazilian Olympic Committee, which is keeping a low profile as the city faces a major economic crisis. Overall, the games are projected to cost $12 billion, with 57 percent paid for by Brazil’s government and 43 percent by sponsors. There were some good outcomes: the 1.6 million tourists that came to the games spent R$424 (USD$125) a day, and international media coverage was largely positive.

“I was so proud of my city and my country,” says Fontanive. “We were facing a huge financial crisis, we still are, but we were able to create a beautiful event for everyone. But it is over and, now we have to deal with tough reality.”


For the athletes’ sake, failure was unacceptable in any of the 1.8 million meals provided in the Olympic Village, especially when it came to cooking meat. The main concern was the presence of substances like clenbuterol, used as treatment for breathing-related diseases in cattle. The drug has anabolic effects that can be identified by doping tests — and no athlete wants that. Brazil is one of the few countries that still authorize clenbuterol use in food-producing animals (the Food and Drug Administration banned it in the U.S. in 1991). But Sapore, the catering company chosen to provision the Olympic Village, ensured them the village would be free of the supplement. “All suppliers have certificates attesting a clenbuterol-free diet for the cattle,” said Veridiana Corrêa, Sapore’s executive director for the Olympics.