Jon Renthrope hoisted a beer keg above his head to raucous cheers and applause after delivering a pitch for his business to a panel of judges who held a $50,000 grand prize in their hands. His venture, Cajun Fire Brewing, is the city's next "big idea," Renthrope told the judges during his pitch.
A short time later, the panel agreed, awarding the company top honors in the Big Idea Challenge.
Cajun Fire Brewing bested 12 other start-up enterprises in Friday night's competition, the final event of the sixth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
The Idea Village-produced event consists of seven days of seminars and business pitch challenges aimed at engaging the city's entrepreneurial community. Throughout the week, entrepreneurs and business executives led seminars offering advice on strategies to create and grow new companies. Organizers said more than 75 New Orleans-based start-ups competed in 16 contests for venture, angel and seed funding throughout the week.
The Big Idea Challenge was the grandest of them all.Attendees were charged $25 to attend, then were given a "voting chip," valued at the same amount, that they could give to the business of their choice after listening to short pitches from each.
Cajun Fire, sunglasses maker KREWE du Optic and online marketplace Where Y'Art were the voting crowd's favorites, meaning they moved on to a second round of pitches before the five judges.
All of the businesses in the competition were able to keep the money "invested" in them by the audience.
Despite a persistent thunderstorm, a crowd of several hundred people gathered on Fulton Street outside Manning's Restaurant to participate in the contest. More than 1,300 chips were cast.
Renthrope, a New Orleans native and graduate of St. Augustine High School, created Cajun Fire in 2011 after returning to New Orleans from college in Florida. He told the crowd that he hopes to capture the city's culture in his brew by producing a beer that matches New Orleans' high standards for food and that reinvigorates what once was a bustling beer-making business in the city. The company's beer menu includes praline- and honey-flavored ales.
He intends to use the prize money to find a permanent home in Orleans Parish, preferably a blighted building in need of a little love, Renthrope said.
Where Y'Art, another of the finalists, is an online marketplace connecting New Orleans-based artists with buyers from around the world. The website features paintings, sculptures, clothing, jewelry and other handmade art pieces. It also allows sculptors, painters, fashion designers and other artists to accept offers to create custom pieces and commissioned work.
KREWE du Optic, the final venture making a pitch to the panel of judges, produces handmade sunglasses in New Orleans. The company was founded last year by Stirling Barrett, who serves as its creative director.
All of the finalists told the judges they intend to build companies that would grow in New Orleans. The five-judge panel consisted of actor Wendell Pierce, former Saints quarterback and restaurateur Archie Manning, visual artist Terrance Osborne, Saints punter Thomas Morstead and chef and restaurant owner Susan Spicer.
Besides the three finalists, the other entrants in the competition were: 4D Supplements, a company that makes energy drinks for athletes; Athletic Performance Testing, which offers programs to coaches to evaluate and improve the performance of athletes; Bats on Tees, a T-shirt, purse and accessories designer and retailer; BitBike, a bike-sharing outfit; Culture Connect, a mobile platform developed for museums and cultural institutions; FundDat, a crowdfunding service dedicated to New Orleans ventures; iSEEChange, a "public media experiment" created to encourage conversation about the effects of changes in weather and climate on the lives of Americans; MakerState, which works with schools to introduce game-based learning techniques to young children; Threadix, a washable electronic chip embedded into event apparel that can replace tickets; and Locally Preserved, which manufactures jams, jellies, fruit and simple syrups, and all-natural cocktail mixers using five or fewer ingredients.