Business Class –

Business Class: Madison restaurants partake in food finance institute as it goes national

Aaron Collins, co-owner of Banzo restaurant, places a customer’s food order on a cart outside the business as workers engage in social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Banzo is participating in an accelerator that’s gone national for the first time — the Food Finance Institute. 


Emilie Heidemann | Wisconsin State Journal

A popular Wisconsin training program that’s going national this year may just be one local falafel restaurant’s — and savory pepperoni ball maker’s — key to expanding retail operations in the coming months.

Founded in 2011, Madison-based Banzo offers Middle Eastern fare at its North Side restaurant and at eight city grocery stores, said co-owner Aaron Collins. Bonnie’s Balls products, whose Italian-inspired recipe is still being perfected after four and a half years, are currently sold at Madison butcher shops Bucky’s Varsity Meats and the Conscious Carnivore, owner Bonnie Raimy said.

But through a free initiative called the Food Finance Institute Fellows Program, which last year replaced the similarly structured FaBcap Accelerator that existed for almost half a decade, both businesses are hoping to see their products grace the shelves of storefronts regionally and across the country — amid a time that restaurants remain ever-battered by staffing shortages and closures driven by the omicron variant.

FaBcap was a program that built up 10 Wisconsin-based food and beverage businesses each year. The accepted applicants went through the nine-month accelerator, which included one-on-one coaching, six industry-facilitated workshops, a financial package assessment and a closing pitch presentation.

Each business received a $10,000 check upon the program’s conclusion, made possible by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which has provided the accelerator $100,000 to $200,000 each year.

The institute is now going national because of an increase in applicants from outside Wisconsin, program manager Brad Rostowfske said, adding that the state has a chance to again cement itself as a food, beverage and dairy hub — its a “corridor of plenty.”

Likely driving that demand is data from July 2021 that states FaBcap had graduated five classes of 10 businesses annually — each attracting a combined $864,250 in grants, $7.6 million in debt financing and $10 million in equity funding. Yearly sales for each business culminate at around $36 million.

Updated structure

Part of the UW Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship, the Food Finance Institute expects to take on four cohorts of 15 businesses grouped by specialty. This year, there are two cohorts for food and beverage establishments, and two more for agriculture and processing technology companies, respectively, Rostowfske explained.

The first cohort, for which Banzo and Bonnie’s Balls are part, met for the first time in an online seminar Jan. 15, and includes fellow establishments from Milwaukee, New York state and California. The agriculture and processing cohorts are accepting applications until Jan. 30. The second food and beverage cohort participants have not yet been announced.

The institute started with a financial management boot camp, and will transition to weekly coaching calls and meetings that touch on expert topics like outsourcing, building projects, food safety, law and money. It is set to end with a pitching event, as well as a public celebration, on June 16.

Amid the health crisis, the biggest takeaway Rostowfske hopes the establishments derive is resiliency and “organizing your own chaos.” There’s an opportunity for restaurants in particular to grow beyond their “footprints,” and trying something new, he said.

Hopes for expansion

“When you have something no one else has, you run with it,” Raimy said of founding and expanding Bonnie’s Balls, for which she is the only current employee.

Raimy applied for the Food Finance Institute after some close restaurant industry friends informed her of the affair. Now she intends to take “every opportunity this program provides.”

While Raimy wishes to sell her doughy specialties in stores around the U.S., working with suppliers that “have a high ethical standard on how their product is being treated and raised” is her highest priority. She said Bonnie’s Balls has been fortunate enough to emerge unscathed from the pandemic thus far.

Banzo and its 20 employees haven’t been as lucky during COVID, Collins said, as the restaurant continues to face staffing shortages spurred by omicron.

But while the establishment’s dining space is closed, food sales are holding up, he said, adding that Banzo sees much promise in wholesale. Collins said he hopes to emerge from the institute with a solid three-year business plan to drive more growth.


  • Madison-based grocery technology startup Fetch Rewards is opening a new office in Alabama, which is set to spur the hire of 200 employees. The company, worth billions, has also hired a new chief customer officer, who is former Facebook executive David Sommer.
  • Madison biomedical giant Exact Sciences Wednesday unveiled new data showcasing the improved accuracy of its second-generation Cologuard test, which helps patients screen for colon cancer at home. The data most notably showed a 95% sensitivity rate for detecting colorectal cancers, which is a higher percentage than previous Cologuard versions.
  • The research arm of Epic Systems Corp. Tuesday released a study stating that cancer screening rates are still lower than expected amid COVID. Clinicians found that rates of breast and colon cancer screenings remain slightly below historical baselines, down by 2.7% and 3.4%, respectively.
  • Seven small companies in Wisconsin will receive up to $600,000 to commercialize their innovations and products, thanks to the Small Business Innovation Research program. Madison biotech companies Cellular LogisticsNano RED and Steam Instruments will get $75,000 each. Madison and Middleton biotech firms Stem Pharm and Voximetry are amassing $100,000 each.
  • Madisonian Nicole Crust has been hired as the new gBETA Urban League accelerator director. The accelerator, a partnership between Downtown startup promoter gener8tor and the Urban League of Greater Madison, uplifts Black-led companies.


* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.