Kyra McAndrews wasn’t sure what she’d find in South Bend after spending her life in major metropolitan areas, but the region has proven to offer the right blend of ingredients to feed her love of food and her passion for public policy.
McAndrews grew up in New York City, attended college outside of Los Angeles, and was living in Washington D.C. when she heard about the INVANTI startup generator in South Bend.
McAndrews had never visited the South Bend – Elkhart region before but admits to having an appetite for risk. While she had been innovating in the urban settings she had lived in, she was uncertain what it would look like to be an entrepreneur in a smaller city.
Still, the INVANTI approach was attractive to McAndrews, who will tell you she’s not an “ideas person,” because it focuses on problems first to create entrepreneurial endeavors.
“It was very exciting that you had Mayor Pete, who was building this beta city. It was a key component for us coming to South Bend and becoming a part of INVANTI,” McAndrews said. “It was compelling that you could come up with solutions, and there was a local government that was interested in either beta testing it themselves or connecting you to resources in the community.”
McAndrews was focused on solving a problem she encountered at a taco stand she worked for in D.C. that wanted to move into a permanent structure. A bathroom mirror that was placed three-quarters of an inch too high during inspection delayed the project for months, McAndrews explained in her INVANTI pitch which was reported about in the South Bend Tribune.
McAndrews’ business Inspectus helps restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs cut through red tape and compliance challenges to emerge as a food establishment.
“I see restaurants and food as a key component of a community,” she said. “It’s what brings us to the table.”
McAndrews credits INVANTI in helping her establish the foundational network that built Inspectus and Startup SBE as helping her gain access to the community and dig deeper. Her relationship with Startup SBE began when she attended a Startup SBE Needs & Leads event.
The purpose of Needs & Leads is to help startup businesses gain access to potential champions, investors, customers, and connectors. Each event offers a small group of startup companies time to talk about their business and any current challenges (“Needs”) which the attendees can assist directly or provide a connection to someone in their broader network (“Leads”).
McAndrews used the event as a way to gain access to local restaurant owners and other connections in the food industry. She credits one of the Startup SBE attendees, Catlin Bulger, to opening the doors that gave her access to the industry people she needed.
Bulger introduced McAndrews to Mike LaCarrubba, the owner of L Street Kitchen, who has been a restaurant owner since 1971, when he opened his first restaurant in Long Island, New York. McAndrews learned a lot about the industry just by sitting at the counter while LaCarrubba prepped for his breakfast crowd.
“While he’s not Inspectus’ target customer, he’s been through that problem (compliance) so many times before in different communities and states (New York and North Carolina),” McAndrews said.
Attending the Needs & Leads event was a tipping point for McAndrews.
“(Bulger) using her social capital to make those introductions meant so much,” she said. “I found I could connect to restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs in a much more meaningful way in South Bend than I had been able to in other settings. That was critical for me, believing I could find a solution to this problem.”
There comes a time when INVANTI participants are required to continue on their own. In the spring of 2019, McAndrews was forming a few ideas of what her business could offer restaurants during their various lifecycles. In particular, she questioned what she could offer that new clients would find valuable and the best way to reach those potential customers.
Startup SBE’s Proof of Concept (PoC) fund allowed McAndrews to apply for non-dilutive grant funding to help her get to the next milestone in developing her business. The funds supported a POC test to identify the most promising customer acquisition strategy for Inspectus. She was able to try out several different strategies on gaining new customers, including using social media, content marketing, and going to the National Restaurant Association conference.
McAndrews found content marketing gave her the most success. She began writing blogs focused on the restaurant industry and the pathway through compliance issues. Medium featured one of her articles, which drew traffic to her website.
She also found value from attending the National Restaurant Association’s show in Chicago, where she was able to meet vendors from all aspects of the food industry. She was able to learn from businesses that worked in her space but focused on launching franchises.
However, one of the most valuable resources to come out of the PoC award wasn’t funding at all. During her pitch to Startup SBE’s mentor committee, one of the mentors connected her with a representative at Gordon Food Service. Through this connection, McAndrews was able to gain insight into how compliance issues are viewed from a food supplier perspective.
“They have an arm called Relish Works, that is focused on creating innovations in the food and beverage space,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to come to the table with someone who is invested in the same customers I am but who is focused on the whole supply chain.”
When McAndrews talks about her startup journey, she speaks a lot about being part of the entrepreneur ecosystem: Finding a community included gaining access to local restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs, as well as finding a tribe of other startup entrepreneurs.
Participating in the SoGal competition, which was co-sponsored by Startup SBE in March 2019, further developed McAndrews network of resources. SoGal is the largest global platform for the education and empowerment of diverse entrepreneurs and investors. Their mission is to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
McAndrews competed in the SoGal Global Pitch Competition, beginning with the regional startup event hosted in South Bend. She went on as a finalist to travel to California to participate in the final pitch competition.
“SoGal provides a community for female startups and entrepreneurs. Indiana SoGal helped me build a community even outside of South Bend. There were over 1,200 applications worldwide, and I was the only South Bend face to move on from Indiana. It was a huge opportunity, and I needed to represent South Bend at that moment,” McAndrews said.
McAndrews does not speak lightly of the opportunities she accessed through her interactions with Startup SBE. She recalls the opportunity to go on WSBT (a local news organization) and talk about her idea, “as a six-month–old business it is incredible.”
In the end, McAndrews talks about the people she’s encountered. She believes South Bend has offered her an experience that is unique and has drawn her to stay.
“You can build something like Inspectus anywhere, but (here) people have been inclined to talking to me with openness and willingness, which I’ve found to be pretty profound,” she said. “To have the ability to network and build relationships across the nation is incredible.”
Currently, McAndrews is working on being nimble and quick on her feet. She started by helping restauranteurs who were in the first five years of business pass a specific compliance hurdle. What she’s found, however, is there is a need for a roadmap that helps walk restauranteurs through the larger compliance dance.
McAndrews received a second round of PoC funds in the winter and is continuing to help restaurants avoid the pitfalls that cost them valuable time and resources. Her entire business is driven by her love for the restaurant business.
McAndrews realizes restaurants will be struggling due to COVID-19, and is committed to being there for them through any compliance issues.
“It breaks my heart (to hear restaurants closing their doors), not only as a customer when you realize your favorite place has closed down but for the community,” she said. “Because this is someone’s baby. Restaurant owners and chefs express love through their food. I think it’s a part of their soul. It’s a part of how they communicate with the world. There is such power when you’re walking by (a restaurant), and you see all these people sitting in there. It doesn’t matter who you are; the food brings you together. I don’t want to lose that.”