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Social entrepreneurs compete for startup cash at 4th annual Pitch NOLA event

Mark Waller, | The Times-Picayune By Mark Waller, | The Times-Picayune
on November 15, 2012 at 4:00 PM, updated November 15, 2012 at 10:03 PM

Close to a dozen entrepreneurs scrambling to create businesses or non-profits that fill unique social needs stood before a full auditorium at Tulane University on Wednesday to compete for prize money that would help kick start their efforts.

08fruit 1 Megan Nuismer, with the New Orleans Fruit Tree Project, catches a grapefruit from volunteer picker Candace Reed while harvesting at Trinity Lutheran Church in January.

Among the enterprises touted at the fourth annual Pitch NOLA competition was a group that harvests fruit from homeowners' trees and distributes it to those who can't afford healthy food; an organization that sends disadvantaged high school students on international trips; and a service to help people expunge criminal records so they can find jobs.

The semifinalists, chosen from about 60 applicants by faculty members at Tulane's A.B. Freeman School of Business, were competing for $5,000, along with free consultation from a group called Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, which helps launch socially minded entities. An audience favorite, chosen by a text message vote at the end of the night, would win $500 and free legal advice from the Baker Donaldson law firm.

Entrepreneur Dana Karen started by pitching her startup, Birthmark Doula Collective, which seeks to reduce Cesarean section rates and increase breastfeeding by linking women with pregnancy and childbirth coaches.

"You stated a need and I think it's a compelling need," said Leslie Jacobs, one of three judges. "What's your business model? Are you a for-profit or a non-profit? It's very hard to judge the viability of this idea."

Lawyers Ameca Reali and Adrienne Wheeler also took the stage to plug their "Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana Mobile Expungement Clinic," founded last year to help residents with non-violent criminal convictions clear their records so they can better compete for jobs.

"This is a huge issue in the city right now," said another judge, Judy Reese Morse, who serves Mayor Mitch Landrieu's deputy chief of staff. However, Morse said she would have liked to hear more about how the effort could be tailored to clients in the most troubled neighborhoods.

Next was Megan Nuismer, who presented her New Orleans Fruit Tree Project. Nuismer's organization harvests fruit from residents' lawns and sends it to neighborhoods where there is a dearth of fresh food options.

"Really, really good idea," Morse said.

In the end, about 250 people in the audience voted by text, watching a graphic projection showing bar charts for each contestant moving as votes registered.

Birthmark Doula Collective was the audience favorite.

As for the judges, their favorite was the Mobile Expungement Clinic, which took home the $5,000 prize.

Then, in an unexpected twist, an anonymous donor offered $4,000 for a second-place winner and $3,000 for a third-place winner. The judges awarded the second place slot to the Doula Collective, and the third place prize to the Fruit Tree Project.

Separately, an anonymous donor also pledged $5,000 for Smiles2Geaux, a mobile dental clinic that aims to address problems with poor oral health.

Reali and Wheeler of the expungement project said while the $5,000 is a great help, the win also will help them raise other financing and call attention to their cause.

A second, related pitch contest is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight. Called "Lots of Progress," it seeks ideas on transforming vacant lots in New Orleans. The event will be held the Propeller Social Innovation Incubator, 4035 Washington Avenue.


Twinkie maker Hostess Brands going out of business

Twinkies maker closing down.jpg
A Hostess Twinkies sign is shown at the Utah Hostess plant in Ogden, Utah. Hostess Brands Inc. told striking employees it would liquidate the company if plant operations didn't return to normal levels by Thursday evening. On Friday, the maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread said filed a motion in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to shutter operations. That will result in the loss of about 18,000 jobs. (Photo by AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The Associated Press By The Associated Press
on November 16, 2012 at 7:07 AM, updated November 16, 2012 at 9:52 AM

IRVING, Texas -- Hostess Brands says it is going out of business, closing plants that make Twinkies and Wonder Bread and laying off all of its 18,500 workers.

The Irving, Texas, company says a nationwide worker strike crippled its ability to make and deliver its products at several locations.

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Hostess had warned employees that it would file a motion in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to unwind its business and sell assets if plant operations didn't return to normal levels by Thursday evening.

The privately held company filed for Chapter 11 protection in January, its second trip through bankruptcy court in less than a decade.

"Many people have worked incredibly long and hard to keep this from happening, but now Hostess Brands has no other alternative than to begin the process of winding down and preparing for the sale of our iconic brands," CEO Gregory F. Rayburn said in a letter to employees posted on the company website.

He added that all employees will eventually lose their jobs, "some sooner than others."

Thousands of members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union went on strike last week after rejecting in September a contract offer that cut wages and benefits. Hostess had already reached a contract agreement with its largest union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Hostess has said that production at about a dozen of the company's 33 plants has been seriously affected by the strike. Three plants were closed earlier this week.

The company, founded in 1930, was fighting battles beyond labor costs. Competition is increasing in the snack space and Americans are increasingly conscious about healthy eating. Hostess also makes Dolly Madison, Drake's and Nature's Pride snacks.


Fat City improvement fund has $736,709 in the bank

Drew Broach, | The Times-Picayune By Drew Broach, | The Times-Picayune
on November 14, 2012 at 5:19 PM, updated November 14, 2012 at 5:58 PM

If Fat City is to become a public laboratory for art, street fairs and creative use of its real estate, as suggested last week by a Manhattan urban planner, Jefferson Parish has the money to start. Since creating a special district to capture tax revenue from the Macy's department store that opened at Lakeside Shopping Center in 2008, Jefferson has banked $736,709, a figure growing by about $200,000 a year.

But Parish Council member Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who essentially controls the money, professes to have no firm plans for spending it. Further, she leans toward using the money for infrastructure -- a park, perhaps, or a parking lot - instead of the smaller, more ephemeral undertakings advanced Friday during a walking tour by the president of the Times Square Alliance.

Since the tax district was created, Lee-Sheng said, the hope has been to raise enough capital to borrow a bigger sum against the guaranteed revenue stream, perhaps partnering with another agency such as the Sheriff's Office, which has earmarked $4.5 million to replace its 1st District patrol station in Fat City, and sinking the proceeds into major public works. The initial notion was a parking lot.

"But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that's not enough of a game-changer," said Lee-Sheng, the driving public force behind the 2010 move to rezone Metairie's former nightlife hub and, eventually, give it a makeover.

Besides, she said, if Fat City comes alive like she hopes in the next 10 to 15 years, "people will walk blocks" to sample its attractions.

A park also is a possible investment, she said. It could thrive if Fat City attracts the young professionals whom Jefferson is targeting as residents, although which comes first - the park or its preferred users -- would seem to be a chicken-or-egg question.

Cynthia Lee-Sheng.jpg Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng

Lee-Sheng said she's not averse to smaller improvements, or transitory ones. An arched sculpture is in the works for 18th Street at Severn Avenue, the main vehicular entry point to Fat City. A festival might be organized. Some beautification is needed, especially greenery, which is scarce in the overwhelmingly concrete landscape.

"A tree really makes a difference," Lee-Sheng said.

The money from the special tax district may be spent in either Fat City or the Lakeside mall property next to it. Setting aside 25 percent of the total money for reserves means Jefferson Parish has $552,536 available to spend as of July, Planning Director Terri Wilkinson said.

While spending it now might be appear tempting, Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said the amount is deceiving.

"A half a million dollars in the scope of things is not a lot of money when you talk about street lights, street improvements," he said.

Plus, he said, parish officials might want to sit on the money until it's needed as a targeted economic development incentive, such as major infrastructure work to attractive a specific business.

When that will come about is not known.

"We all get discouraged because we want it to happen now," Lee-Sheng said. "But we all have to realize it's a long-term plan."

Indeed, Fat City Advisory Board chair Patricia LeBlanc said Wednesday, "We're not in the spending phase of our process yet."

But LeBlanc said there is growing urgency, two years after the rezoning, for something new and tangible in Fat City.

"The parish put a stake in the ground when they passed that ... ordinance," she said. "You want more than anything to create a sense of place."


Toyota issues recall for vehicles with steering, water pump defects

Toyota Motor Corp. is recalling 2.77 million vehicles around the world for a water pump problem and a steering shaft defect that may result in faulty steering — the latest in a spate of quality woes for Japan's top automaker. (Photo by AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
The Associated Press By The Associated Press
on November 14, 2012 at 7:25 AM

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor Corp. is recalling 2.77 million vehicles around the world for a water pump problem and a steering shaft defect that may result in faulty steering -- the latest in a spate of quality woes for Japan's top automaker.

No accidents have been reported related to these two problems announced Wednesday, according to Toyota.

Some 1.51 million vehicles are being recalled for the steering defect in Japan and 1.25 million vehicles abroad -- including 670,000 in the U.S. Affected models include the Prius hybrid, Corolla, Wish and other models produced from 2000 to 2011 in Japan, and from 2000 to 2009 overseas.

Of those vehicles, some 620,000 spanning five hybrid models, including the Prius, have a defective water pump in addition to the steering shaft defect. Those vehicles were produced from 2001 to 2010 in Japan, and from 2003 to 2011 overseas. Another 10,000 vehicles with only a pump problem are also being recalled.

The latest recalls -- affecting Toyota's prized Prius hybrid, a symbol of its technological prowess -- come on top of a recall last month for 7.43 million vehicles for a faulty power-window switch that could cause fires.

Toyota has been trying to fix its reputation after a series of massive recalls of 14 million vehicles over the last several years, mostly in the U.S., affecting faulty floor mats, braking and gas pedals.

Before that, Toyota had boasted a reputation for pristine quality, centered around its super-lean production methods that empowered workers to hone in on quality control. Toyota executives have acknowledged the escalating recalls were partly caused by the company's overly ambitious growth goals.

Executives had shrugged off last month's recalls as coming from products made before stricter quality controls kicked in following the soul-searching that came after the recall scandal in the U.S.

But the latest recall underlines how quality problems continue to dog Toyota, especially as it has gone back to pursuing aggressive growth.

Toyota is now headed to record vehicle sales around the world, offsetting a sales plunge in China with booming demand in emerging markets such as Indonesia, India and Thailand.


Dat Dog goes on a growth spurt

Susan Langenhennig, The Times-Picayune By Susan Langenhennig, The Times-Picayune
on November 12, 2012 at 2:27 PM, updated November 12, 2012 at 10:06 PM

New Orleans’ indigenous hot dog scene continues to expand. A temporary sign recently went up on Dat Dog’s new Garden District digs at 3336 Magazine St., and plans are already in the works for a third location, though its address is still under wraps.

dat-dog.jpg German Smoked Bratwurst, German Wiener and Louisiana Smoked Sausage (from Jefferson Parish) at Dat Dog Ted Jackson, | The Times-Picayune

Renovation work on the Magazine Street Dat Dog is under way on a building that used to house a uniform shop at the corner of Louisiana Avenue. The location should open by the tail end of this year or early 2013, in time to satisfy the hot dog cravings of Super Bowl fans, said co-owner Constantine Georges.

The new restaurant will have the same menu and bar lineup and similar patio seating as the Freret Street Dat Dog.

“Europeans are very good at making the best of their outdoor spaces, and we like to think what we’re conveying is a bit of European atmosphere with New Orleans flavor,” he said.

Dat Dog has been on a growth spurt. It opened as a tiny hot dog stand on Freret in early 2011, moved across the street to a bigger spread in the spring of 2012, and  now the owners have plans for other locations, beyond Magazine.

Dat Dog’s growth arguably has helped launch New Orleans into an era of innovative hot dogs.

Dreamy Weenies opened last summer on North Rampart Street, with a kosher-, halal- and vegan-friendly menu (try the falafel dog with the chunky, Ethopian-style curry), while Diva Dawg opened Sept. 8 at 1906 Magazine St., with a signature all-beef frank made for it by Vaucresson’s Sausage Co.

One of Diva Dawg’s more popular options is the red bean chili dog topped with fried chicken and its housemade “andouille ketchup,” that’s not ketchup and doesn’t have a tomato base, but “is so good I may start selling it,” said owner Ericka Lassair. The condiment is kin to her Creole mayo, but with andouille sausage and “others good secret stuff in it.”

Dat Dog, 5031 Freret St., 504.899.6883.

Dreamy Weenies, 740 N. Rampart St., 504.872.0157

Diva Dawg, 1906 Magazine St., 504.533.4825

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