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Hidden Gems: Meet Josh Schipkowski of Upstart Food Brands

Today we’d like to introduce you to Josh Schipkowski.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
The origins of our company, Upstart Food Brands, can be traced back to my time with another food marketing agency in St. Louis called MarketPlace. I worked there for almost 14 years, helping the owners to launch the business and grow the company into a really successful food-focused creative firm (they’re still doing very well today and continue to do incredible work). They worked with a lot of big, corporate food companies – ingredient manufacturers, some bigger consumer brands, etc. – and did some tremendous, cutting edge work in the B2B food space.

I started as a designer there but grew through art director to creative director to a variety of other positions in technology/web and operations, ultimately spending the last several years in a business/strategy role. They were getting a lot of leads from small and startup food companies, but agencies aren’t typically well-equipped to work with modest budgets, so we had to turn a lot of these great, passionate entrepreneurs away. I missed doing hands-on, creative work and wanted to help, so I spoke with the owners about taking these opportunities on the side when they weren’t a fit for them. I didn’t expect that it would be much more than a little freelance work and a couple extra dollars in my pocket, but I found myself working two more than full-time jobs and needed to make a decision. I’d always wanted to own a business, and if I could create a lean model that would accommodate working with smaller budgets, I could offer a ton of value to fledgling food businesses with the industry experience I’d gained, the well-rounded skill-set I had, and the vast creative network I’d built up. About 5-1/2 years ago, I left MarketPlace to start Upstart Food Brands.

At Upstart Food Brands, we’ve grown to a team of four core members and are interviewing for a 5th (as well as a network of amazing freelance resources when needed), and we work exclusively with small and startup food and beverage brands, doing business consulting, naming, storytelling, brand development, packaging design, web design, marketing, and more. Additionally, being in such a niche space for so long, we’ve established a variety of relationships with other resources like food brokers, food scientists, co-packers, printers, packaging companies, etc., that we can bring in to help companies get to market and find success. This well-rounded perspective of the food business informs our work and helps us ensure that it’s meaningful and effective for our clients.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Most startups are pretty volatile. You go into it hoping that you’ve built a strong model and that the market you’ve identified is there and interested in what you’re selling, but there are always ups and downs. Even with all the right ingredients in place, until you’re established and you gain some reputation, it can be a challenge to consistently land enough business to feel comfortable and successful. When I started Upstart Food Brands, I hadn’t been doing hands-on, creative work for a long time, so I didn’t have quality, relevant, current work to show. We’ve had good and not-as-good years, and it’s taken us a while to get established, but we’ve been gaining significant momentum and reputation the last couple years and are starting to settle into a stable, growth mode with consistent, quality leads streaming in regularly from a variety of sources.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
We work almost exclusively with small and startup food and beverage brands. With such a tight industry focus, we’ve encountered just about every situation (good and bad) that a food/beverage business can face. Having worked with food brokers, product developers, packaging companies, co-packers, logistics people, regulatory experts, food incubators, food investors, trademark attorneys, etc., our work is infinitely more informed and relevant than any typical creative firm. It’s given us a huge advantage in winning business, but most importantly, it’s helped us to become an indispensable partner to our clients.

That said, we’re probably best known for developing thoughtful, strategic food and beverage brands that tell an engaging story and connect emotionally and sincerely with a target audience. From foundational pieces like brand naming, storytelling, positioning, and identity development to distinct packaging design that performs at the shelf (as well as online) to developing robust e-commerce web solutions and branded social media properties, our ability to create a unique core narrative and to maintain a consistent, cohesive voice, personality, and aesthetic throughout every brand and marketing touchpoint is a big reason why our upstart brands are successful. That… and it doesn’t hurt that our virtual model allows us to provide these services at a very competitive price point!

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had so many great people positively influence the success of my career and business; far too many to name them all, but here are a few…

Eric Bratzler, who now owns his own architecture firm, got me my first design job, managing the art department at a company called Paramount. I was young, unqualified, and inexperienced, but he vouched for me, and the experience I gained in that position was invaluable.

Phil and Tracy Landau hired me as the first employee at their company, MarketPlace. I learned so much from them personally and from the experiences I gained helping them build their business into a very successful food marketing agency over the course of nearly 14 years. Being intimately involved in nearly every aspect of building a creative business gave me unparalleled perspective and fueled my passion for food and beverage brands.

There were other colleagues from MarketPlace, many of whom I actually hired and managed, who did much more to inspire me and teach me about great storytelling, design, and brand strategy than I likely ever offered them. Jeremy Huggins, Crystal Buckey, Megan Hook, my brother Jason (who’s now with Upstart), and many others helped shape my approach to developing brands.

My wife and business partner, Sara, believed in me and encouraged me to follow my passion, even if it meant leaving a great, secure job to start my own business. It likely would have never happened without her incredible support.

Ken Kellerhals, a client and partner, former owner of Bissinger’s Chocolates, current owner of Sauer Frau squeezable sauerkraut, Sidekick Market, Bare Gummies, and food brokerage/brand incubator, PCS Gourmet Foods, has taught me an incredible amount about building food brands, retail grocery, and helping small companies get to market.

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Image Credits
Chris Malacarne

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