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Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Ilan Kogan wants to teach you how to amaze dinner guests with hot ice cream, exploding cocktails, powdered butter and blueberry juice caviar. But he’s no wannabe celebrity chef angling for a TV show. In fact, he’s not a chef at all.
The 20-year-old Torontonian is a student at the Schulich School of Business at York University who has a fondness for cooking, chemistry and entrepreneurship. With his startup, Atom & Eat, he has found a way to combine all these interests with the goal of popularizing the esoteric field of molecular gastronomy.
“I really enjoy chemistry,” says Mr. Kogan, who was the 2014 winner of the Schulich Startup Day competition. “And this is chemistry that’s to eat, so how could I turn away from that combination?”
His Web-based company is in part an outgrowth of a food blog that he started when he was 15 that explored Japanese-French fusion desserts and cakes that take three days to make.
Atom & Eat sells ingredients used in the food industry and high-end restaurants and shows how they can raise the bar in ordinary kitchens. Among them are soy lecithin, tapioca maltodextrin, agar-agar and sodium alginate, which are packaged into 25-gram units and sold for $15 each under consumer-friendly names such as Bubblo, Arida, Kanten and Cir.
Soy lecithin, for instance, is an oily substance that occurs naturally in soybeans and turns bubbly when mixed with liquid. The food industry uses it as an emulsifier in candy bars and baked goods. Consumers can use Bubblo to make creative cocktails or gourmet concoctions such as shallot foam to serve with fish. Tapioca maltodextrin is a bulking agent derived from tapioca starch, which has the ability to absorb fat and transform it into powder. Agar-agar, which Mr. Kogan is selling as Kanten, is a jelly-like substance obtained from algae. Balsamic-pearl-stuffed cucumber, anyone?
All of these products are approved food ingredients that most people have eaten. The problem is most people don’t know it, unless they are reading the fine print on food labels. This means Mr. Kogan faces an uphill climb trying to persuade an increasingly health-conscious public that these ingredients are safe and easy to use.
“Michelin-starred restaurants often serve entrees with foam,” he says. “But if you ask someone if they want to add soy lecithin to their food, they will say, ‘No, I don’t want to add that to my food. That sounds dangerous.’ It’s difficult to sell a product that people are unreasonably scared of.”
And even when people do know a bit about molecular gastronomy, they tend to believe it is too difficult and complicated to try at home.
To make his products as consumer friendly as possible, Mr. Kogan has adorned his website with eye-catching photography and innovative but easy-to-understand recipes and tutorials. As an experienced food blogger and online reviewer, he has many contacts he hopes will help spread the word.
The Challenge: How can Atom & Eat dispel negative preconceptions about food additives and persuade consumers to try something new at home?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Corey Ferreira, content marketer at Shopify, Ottawa
Mr. Kogan should communicate value and safety visually with badges, seals or certificates displayed under the description of the products. He wants to build trust, and sometimes doing this visually is a lot better than writing about it.
He has an FAQ (frequently asked questions), which is great, but some of the questions and answers, such as “Is molecular gastronomy safe?” would also work well on the products page. Perhaps creating a unique FAQ for each ingredient would be a way to build trust with visitors. It wouldn’t hurt to add a live-chat function to the website to respond to any concerns quickly.
It also might be a good idea to add more social proof to the pages by having customers share recipes and experiences with the products. Letting potential customers read about other customers’ experiences significantly increases the trust of those buying online.
Doug Stephens, consultant at Retail Prophet, Toronto
This is a really interesting category but one that requires a degree of explanation on a few levels, both with respect to what these products do and, secondly, what they consist of. Potential customers should know immediately upon arriving at the site that these products result in a unique food experience.
Rather than try to explain the offering with words, I would strongly recommend lots of fun videos that demonstrate how these incredibly visual, experiential and unique products can add a new dimension to cooking and entertaining.
An increasing percentage of online traffic is video. In fact, for a growing number of shoppers, YouTube is now the starting point. So, I would recommend Atom & Eat establish a YouTube channel and populate it with as much great product content as possible. Then make sure that content is also migrated over to the website to keep people onsite longer. Video also provides a much more accessible and friendly way to speak to people’s concerns about ingredients, and if done well, can be highly shareable via social networks.
Daniel Patricio, owner of Bull & Cleaver, which sells South African-style cured meat (biltong) online in the United States, Toronto
Looking at Atom & Eat’s homepage, the photography is gorgeous and really captures the imagination. The problem is that when I actually go look at the products, some of the magic is missing. When it comes to online sales, product pages are a gold mine, but here it seems like I’m buying a chemical. I recommend pictures of what the products actually can make.
The biggest thing is empowering people that they can do it. If Ilan has chefs, he should leverage them. And then leverage other people’s Instagram photos. Another thing that might be interesting are customer reviews. With my store, the difference in conversion rates after you have reviews is immense.
I don’t think it’s worth being defensive on the health front. I think it’s important to “lean in” to the part of the market of people who are already adventurous enough to try something like this.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Add visual cues
Communicate value and safety visually with badges, seals or certificates alongside descriptions of the products.
Experiment with video
A growing number of shoppers are starting their buying experience by watching videos.
They can convert online browsers to buyers.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Special to The Globe and Mail