And The Downtown Startup Challenge Winner Is…


Picture this: You’re hungry, tired, just getting home from work. You open up your fridge, and a delicious, nutritious, perfectly balanced, well-prepared meal awaits.

Sound good? Ready to buy a meal? Then you’re in luck! Hundreds gathered to watch on October 4, as The Community Foundation awarded $30,000 to The Balanced Chef, winner of this year’s Downtown Startup Challenge.

Three finalists pitched ideas for innovative business concepts to a panel of judges at the thINCubator gathering. The Balanced Chef contended with Main Street Market – a coffee shop, craft product emporium and brewpub in Rome – and Utica Brewing Company – a family-friendly brewpub featuring high-quality craft beer.

In its second year, the Downtown Startup Challenge was open to start-ups and early-stage businesses looking to open a storefront location in downtown Utica or Rome. Participation in the Challenge nearly doubled from 2016, with two-thirds of this year’s 90 applicants accepted to participate in the five-month program. Participants were coached and mentored by Mohawk Valley Community College’s thINCubator, which offers accelerated development and deployment programming for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“The Community Foundation is committed to encouraging our area’s emerging entrepreneurial culture through the Downtown Startup Challenge,” said Alicia Dicks, president/CEO of The Community Foundation. “Entrepreneurs like The Balanced Chef are a growing part of a grassroots economic development resurgence in our region, and we’re thrilled that they, and all those who participated in the Challenge, will add to the vibrancy and success of our area’s urban centers.”

The Balanced Chef offers fully-prepared, fresh, “never-frozen” meals individually portioned and packaged. Currently, customers can order online and meals are delivered to homes and local businesses. Executive Chef Brian Donovan says he and partner Matthew LaBella are eager to transition the company from its current internet-only model to a successful storefront operation in downtown Utica.

“We’re very excited to be moving our plan forward, thanks to the support from The Community Foundation and its Corporate Partners,” Donovan said. “The Challenge has been a great way for us and others in the community to get inspiration and support that encourages entrepreneurism. We genuinely want to contribute to this movement; it’s something that’s really making a difference to our entire area.”

The Downtown Startup Challenge was made possible through the generosity of The Community Foundation’s Corporate Partners.

Photos by Nancy L. Ford Photography.