To thundering cheers and friends of the winners storming the stage in celebration, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week 2014 ended Friday when Cajun Fire Brewing Company won the Big Idea business pitch contest and with it $50,000 to help move its craft brewing operation from a home-based pursuit to a commercial reality.
Visitors to the Fulton Street closeout of the business festival’s sixth year bought $25 chips to cast votes for the 13 competing startups making their pitch. In all, 1,348 votes were cast. The business founders will keep the $33,700 in proportion to the votes they received from the crowd.
The top three chip collectors, including the planned brewery and the Where Y’Art online market and marketing service for artists and the KREWE du Optic line of New Orleans-inspired sunglasses, took the stage in a tent erected in the courtyard of Manning’s Restaurant because of Friday’s rainy weather.
One of the judges, actor Wendell Pierce, urged the audience to focus during the three-minute pitches. “These three minutes are the most important three minutes in these companies’ young life,” he said.
Then the trio of entrepreneurs made their final cases before a raucous crowd pocketed with cheering sections for each venture. They preached their business visions, under the tent, with church revival zeal.
Stirling Barrett of KREWE du Optic called for the international spread of a New Orleans-rooted brand. “We’ve been propelled to the doorstep of the next level,” he said.
Where Y’Art co-founder Collin Ferguson proclaimed her service an economic engine for New Orleans artists. “We can help these artists turn their passions into profits,” she said. And she envisioned her idea spreading. “Imagine a Where Y’Art in Austin, Savannah, Santa Fe.”
Jon Renthrope, founder and brewmaster of Cajun Fire, said he wants to make New Orleans famous for its local beer. He described the city’s past with a vibrant brewing industry and called for reviving the tradition as a cultural imperative. It cannot, he said, “be one of those things that comes to an end.”
The panel of judges – Pierce, football patriarch and Big Idea venue host Archie Manning, chef Susan Spicer, artist Terrance Osborne and New Orleans Saints kicker Thomas Morstead – asked the competitors questions about their business models and challenges they face.
And after conferring briefly, they rendered their decision, sending the Cajun Fire team erupting into group hugs and the Hot 8 Brass Band kicking in for the post-party.
“This has been a long, long ride,” Renthrope, winded, said from the stage. “Once I open the tap room, I’m going to invite everyone over there.”
Renthrope said afterward that the money will help secure equipment and move the operation closer to a storefront location. If anything, though, he said the prize gives him and his partners more incentive to work harder to continue developing the brewery. Renthrope is working with Adam Dawson, Paul Taylor, Courtney Wilson and Jomarque Renthrope on the project.
“We’ve still got the same passion,” he said, “we’ve got the same drive.”
Kirk Coco, owner of the NOLA Brewing Co., served as a mentor for Renthrope and his team during the entrepreneur coaching season produced by The Idea Village in the run-up to Entrepreneur Week. He said he doesn’t see Cajun Fire as competition but as more fuel for the craft brewery business.
“That’s my team,” Coco said amid the celebration after the results. “I was the mentor for them. They are going to kill it in the city and this state.”
Coco said the Cajun Fire team has the key characteristic, passion for beer, needed to excel in the business. In addition, Renthrope and his partners focus on what Coco called “avant garde” flavors, such as a praline beer and a honey beer, which will set them apart.
“You’re going to see their name everywhere very soon,” Coco said.
Cajun Fire also worked with a team of master of business administration students from Loyola University on sharpening its business plans as part of the entrepreneur course. Cajun Fire participated in the most recent class of The Idea Village’s main business accelerator program.
And the Loyola team working with the brewery won its own contest, against other schools from across the country, for a pitch contest earlier in the day on behalf of Cajun Fire.
Felipe Massa, assistant professor of management at Loyola who guided the MBA team working with Cajun Fire, said the brewery partners showed remarkable maturity in their acceptance of criticism and eagerness to seek help.
“They understood they needed a community around them from the beginning,” Massa said.
The victory for Loyola itself, although it was for prestige and not money, added to Massa’s jubilant mood. The competition was formidable: The University of California at Berkeley, The University of Chicago, Cornell University, The University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University.
Tim Williamson, chief executive of The Idea Village, argued after the pitches that the energy around entrepreneurship in New Orleans has achieved full validation. Thousands of people turned out on a rainy day to support entrepreneurs from New Orleans, he stressed.
“It’s not about can we do this,” he said. “We are. We need to start looking forward to what’s next.”
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