They are the entrepreneurs behind a St. Louis-based startup that turned a negative into a positive, and catapulted it into a business that’s helping make more sense out of what we purchase at the grocery store.
The innovators behind FoodEssentials, now based in downtown St. Louis, began their journey about a decade ago, when the father of two of the company’s founders experienced heart health issues. Because of that, brothers Dagan and Anton Xavier needed to help their father find heart-healthy groceries.
So, the Xavier brothers, living in Australia at the time, began the painstaking task of literally walking into grocery stores and copying and collecting the data that was printed on the packaged foods that populated grocery store shelves. Five years later, the Xavier brothers connected with Dheeraj Patri, a childhood friend of Anton’s from Hong Kong, and moved FoodEssentials to Chicago. Since then, they have put together what the founders claim is the largest data collection of food product information in the world, covering 90 percent of current food sales.
The three founders realized early that they had compiled some very, very useful information. The world’s consumers are becoming more health conscious, with a desire to know just what’s included in the packaged foods they purchase. Retailers, meantime, want to know, for example, how many low-cal products or low sodium products they have in stock. And regulators want to know just how the eating habits of consumers are trending. FoodEssentials counts all three as customers – that includes a five-year, 3.6 million dollar contract the St. Louis company signed in 2009 with the Food and Drug Administration, which uses the data to analyze consumer food purchasing habits.
How would a typical St. Louis shopper benefit from what FoodEssentials is doing? Here’s one way: FoodEssentials provides data to an application called Gluten Free R.D. Consumers who are trying to reduce gluten intake can download the app, then input information into it at the grocery store, when making purchases. The data that forms the foundation of the app was provided by FoodEssentials.
We’ve all seen grocery store “shelf tags” – those placards or stickers that appear on actual grocery shelves, the ones that include information on whether a product contains “no artificial flavors” or is a “good source of calcium”. That information, too, is based on data provided by FoodEssentials.
The data that FoodEssentials provides is a boon to food researchers as well. Before the emergence of the St. Louis startup, those researchers had to retrieve food-label data from several different sources, including retailers themselves, analysts and third parties who track food purchases. This resulted in paying hefty licensing fees—and the data still wasn’t current, because many of these sources offered older information about discontinued food products.
The company that got its start in Australia then moved to Chicago, now calls St. Louis home, thanks in large measure to a $50,000 grant, then a subsequent $100,000 grant, from the St. Louis business startup incubator known as Arch Grants. Since moving to St. Louis, FoodEssentials has successfully raised $800,000, including a half-million dollars from the local group Cultivation Capital. The most recent allocation – the $100,000 Arch Grant — is being used to hire a group of Washington University MBA’s, to keep them here in St. Louis, as opposed to them taking their talents to a place such as Silicon Valley.
FoodEssentials is based in the downtown T-Rex Building on Olive.
Hear more in an audio clip of Dagan Xavier and Dheeraj Patri, interviewed by KMOX Radio’s Charlie Brennan on Tuesday, May 14.