Antonio has a passion for healthy food and has built a wonderful career around it. Raised in an Italian family in New Jersey, with an abundance of great cooks, he learned the importance of eating well early on. He first pursued his passion for food by attending The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. After working for a few years as a cook in Michelin-starred restaurants in NYC, he realized this career did not provide the sustainable work/life balance he was looking for, so he switched gears and decided to go back to school. He graduated from Union County College with an Associates’ degree in Communications and transferred to Drew University where he graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2018 with a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Sustainability and a minor in Italian. Antonio worked in marketing for GrowNYC, Woodlands Maple, and in Development for Slow Food USA, before co-founding beet & pear, a mission-driven startup centered around local food distribution, technology and sustainable agriculture. Currently directing agile product development, strategic planning, communications, financials, org. structure and high-level management. He is currently finishing up his M.A. in Food Studies at New York University and resides in Princeton, NJ.
BENEFITS OF DREW
Antonio met Sunita Bhargava, Director of Transfer and Continuing Education at a college fair at Union County College. Sunita explained how Drew had an interdisciplinary approach to education and since he wanted to integrate business and sustainability, he knew Drew was the right college for him. He said, “I knew I could build my own track and create my own curriculum, and that this could be the beginning of something special, as long as I was ready to work for it.”
He decided to study Environmental Studies & Sustainability because it was the closest he could get to his passion for food & agriculture. He minored in Italian as well. Antonio said, “Drew gives you an opportunity to experiment and try so many different things. I was a little older, I was 26 when I started, and I didn’t take for granted that I had an opportunity to learn a foreign language with ties to my culture and heritage. He said about his decision to minor inItalian, “I took this opportunity without thinking twice, and it has enriched my life beyond belief. I’m now nearly fluent and continuing to speak Italian regularly.”
At Drew he worked as a grad assistant for the Caspersen School, was actively involved with the Italian Club, spent the summer in Orvieto, Italy on a shortTREC, and was involved in environmental groups, often cleaning out the forest. His favorite memories of Drew include times in the forest, especially studying environmentalism.
Antonio said, “I always felt comfortable approaching my professors at Drew because they made themselves available to me. This comfort level transferred to the real world, in that I felt confident in reaching out to people and organizations which would otherwise seem like a stretch. I’ve been able to network effectively and create some unique opportunities in my field as a result.”
He had two special, important mentors throughout his time at Drew. Antonio said this about Dr. Lisa Jordan, “She mentored me and helped me navigate my whole time in environmental studies. She was available 24/7, helping me through presentations, research projects, and always encouraging me to focus on my passions.” His second mentor was the director of Italian program, Dr. Emmanuel Occhipinti. “He is the best, honestly. He made himself totally available, helped me secure the trip to Italy. He encouraged me to take the minor in Italian and always to be my best. We’re still in touch and I am forever grateful to both of them.”
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
What inspired you to pursue an M.A. in Food Studies at NYU?
My B.A. major in sustainability is fairly broad, but food was always my passion and this was never in question. After Drew, I was unsure if I wanted to go straight into the workforce or continue my education. I knew someone at Slow Food who had enrolled in the Master’s in Food Studies at NYU and they said it was a great program, at that moment I checked it out and thought it could be another chance to create valuable opportunities for myself, like I did at Drew. I felt I had so much more room to grow academically and professionally, and NYU would offer the resources I needed to inch even closer to my dreams and goals.
When did you first become interested in food?
I’ve been fascinated with cooking since I was a child, growing up in this big, loud Italian family, stealing fresh pasta dough off the table and eating, playing with it. For my senior project in high school I cooked for my principal and vice principal, and I think at that point, everybody knew where my future was going. In that moment, I feel like food went from being my passion to being my purpose. I soon left for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY after high school and worked as a cook in a few Michelin-starred kitchens. Unfortunately, after a few years I felt overworked and underpaid and I started losing my passion for it. Food was being wasted, the lifestyle wasn’t sustainable and I felt so unfulfilled. It was the toughest decision I’ve ever made, but I did it, and I am so happy that I did. I walked out of the kitchen and never looked back, started from scratch and slowly built a different career in the food space.
You’ve worked in marketing and development. How important is effective marketing in growing a business?
Great marketing is everything, especially today. You can have the most impressive, impactful product in the world, but if you are not marketing it properly, it will fail. Marketing creates healthy demand. My first experience in marketing involved convincing people to buy organic, single-origin maple syrup instead of the typical store-bought “maple”, made primarily using high fructose corn syrup. From there I worked in communications for Grow NYC, Slow Food, and more, focusing on food justice and communicating its importance to the public. These experiences heavily inspired the beginnings of my own project, as good marketing is the way we build relationships with small partners and eventually make local farms more profitable.
beet & pear’s mission is “to reconnect the public with their roots: good, local food. In a modern economy, we can do better for our farmers than weekly market tables. By providing innovative platforms for farmers and members to connect, we cultivate powerful local food systems while rethinking supply chains.” Could you talk about what inspired you to found this start-up?
I went to Cuba through my M.A. program at New York University and while there, I met some people who shared my opinion that people should be getting their food from small local farms as much as possible. They have this network of small, sustainable farms which source a great amount of the country’s food, and I wanted to see something similar in America. When I came back during the start of the Pandemic in March, I had an idea for an app, essentially an Instacart but for small farms. I took this idea to my friends from Cuba and they said it could be cool, and definitely there was a need for it. We put our heads together and worked 6-7 days a week, 15-16 hours a day and eventually we established this mission together, which is based on building a better local food system, especially important during a pandemic. Shopping at the grocery store just makes less sense. Small farmers are suffering, going bankrupt and they deserve more exposure. Farmers Markets are so important, but practically speaking, they are not profitable enough for farmers. So I took all of my experiences in food, and they manifested in this project. It’s our mission to build better local food systems, a more efficient and sustainable supply chain. To support small farmers, and to leverage technology to bridge that gap between farmers and everyday people. I think there is a massive cultural gap between farmers and everybody else, so by using technology we can better connect farmers with people. We have built a social network so far to test this theory, as well as a few other products in our pipeline which aim to achieve this.
The name beet & pear symbolizes connecting people back to their roots. The beet is obviously a root vegetable and the pear is a high-hanging fruit, meaning we want everything and everybody to come together, from top to bottom, and celebrate the origins of healthy eating. We want to connect all people back to their roots, which I believe are wholesome local foods produced sustainably by independent farmers. The mission doesn’t stop there, as we also need to tap in and change the public consciousness, we need people to understand why it’s better to get your food straight from a small farm, instead of getting delivery everyday from Whole Foods. I aim to connect the dots between the convenience of grocery delivery and the ethics of local food production.
What do you think is the key to your success in general and especially in your field?
I’d say risks, just taking risks. A lot of my life hasn’t been easy, I’ve tried at a lot of different things and failed at some of these things, but I always knew my purpose — it was never in question. I think it’s first about finding your purpose and your passion, and then acting purposefully on both, pursuing everything with both in mind. My passion for food and purpose of making an impact here led me to Culinary School, Drew, then Europe, then NYU, and now to launching this company. If I didn’t take these risks, network, find mentors, travel, change careers, do unpaid internships, etc., I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d still be living a life that didn’t align with my higher purpose. If I can offer any advice to those younger than I am: Take risks and be bold, even if you are afraid to do something. If it seems out of your reach or impossible, do it anyway and find out.
What advice would you give students who are interested in being entrepreneurs?
I’m open to advising or mentoring any current students or young alumni, find me on LinkedIn and reach out! As far as advice right now, I’d say being an entrepreneur is about taking risks but before you do that, you need to build up your experience and strengthen your CV in your specific field or niche, and then go get as granular as possible about what you want to do, and make sure it aligns with your passion and your purpose. Since I was a kid, it was always about eating better food and helping as many people as possible do the same. I wouldn’t drink soda or industrial food when I was five, six years old. I don’t know how I intuitively knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I think these things are easy when you are aligned with your mission. Things just fall into place, opportunities present themselves to you when you least expect it.
Are there any fun facts you would like to share?
Now that I stopped cooking professionally, I love to cook at home. The key difference is that now I can take my time.
Antonio Mancini Albano
Founder | CEO