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  • Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture
  • Cornell AgriTech
Sweet Pea Plant-Based Kitchen won $250,000 at the 2022 Grow-NY food business competition.

Mike Linehan watched a friend avoid heart bypass surgery by switching to a plant-based diet and knew that he needed to share what he learned with the world.

Facing his own health issues, Linehan also switched to a plant-based diet, losing weight and no longer requiring high cholesterol and blood pressure medication. But the food Linehan was eating, though healthy, wasn’t exciting or enjoyable.

That’s where chef Ryan Jennings entered the picture.

In 2019, Linehan and Jennings launched Sweet Pea Plant-Based Kitchen in Rochester. Linehan, an entrepreneur, had run several businesses, including the former Copper Grass Bistro in Pittsford, where Jennings worked as executive chef and from where their friendship and eventual business partnership began.

Jennings, who went on to serve as corporate executive chef for the Max Rochester restaurant group after Copper Grass Bistro closed, was tasked with taking meals like chicken parmesan and burgers that Linehan dearly missed and transforming them into whole-food, plant-based, oil-free dishes.

“Plant-based eating is the future of food and I’m proud to be working toward making a new way for people to eat,” Jennings said. “Part of what we’re doing at Sweet Pea is working to change hearts and minds.”

At first, they operated out of a 700-square-foot kitchen, producing packaged meals for pickup and local delivery. With vegan and plant-based diets gaining widespread popularity, the meals became a hit. So far, Jennings has developed over 250 different recipes.

Sweet Pea sold around $200,000 in sales in 2019. By 2021, they had eclipsed $800,000. To keep up with demand, they relocated to a new, 3,500-square-foot facility in Rochester at the end of 2020.

What makes Sweet Pea stand out from the ever-increasing crowd of meal delivery companies is the nutritional coaching — led by dietician Jen Nguyen — that’s available with their subscription model.

“Jen is the key part to this,” Jennings said, adding that the consultations help people accountable and on track in their health goals. “The accountability and education the customers get really help make these changes stick.”

Good food comes from good ingredients and for Sweet Pea, that meant sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible from the 40-mile radius of Rochester that they currently serve. The New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (CoE) helped connect Sweet Pea to several of those suppliers and continues facilitating connections between Sweet Pea and other food suppliers to encourage collaboration and growth.

The CoE team also helped Sweet Pea apply for the 2022 Grow-NY food business competition and after the company was chosen as one of the 20 finalists that would compete for a share of $3 million in prize money, the CoE worked with Sweet Pea to review and perfect its presentation for the judges at the November 2022 summit.

With that help, Sweet Pea won $250,000 at the competition.

Jennings said the prize money would allow them to bolster its shipping business from beyond the 40-mile radius Sweet Pea currently serves, to across New York state and beyond. To facilitate that growth, Sweet Pea is currently working with the CoE team to obtain the required permits and follow the regulations needed to sell their meals across state lines.

Through the CoE, Sweet Pea is also working with the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) to develop new food products and test for food safety.

Sweet Pea is also looking at expanding its line of consumer-packaged goods, including bean-based granola bars, hummus and other snacks.

While their eyes are looking down the East Coast and eventually across the country, Jennings said Sweet Pea is committed to sourcing and producing its meals in the Rochester area, providing a valuable asset for the region’s food and agriculture economy.

“Grow-NY and everything Cornell has been an invaluable resource for our company to focus our plans on the future and connect us with the regional partners to help our business grow,” Jennings said. “It takes all of these things to help a company grow.”

Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.

 

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