By Lorrie Baumann
Marilyn Johnson received her commercial food producer license from the state of California at the end of August. With that in hand, she was ready to move the production of her Spread the Love jams and jellies out of her house and into KitchenTown, a processing kitchen incubator in San Mateo, California. It’s a big step for the woman who only started taking seriously the possibility that making high-quality fruit preserves could actually be a career in 2013.
She’d found herself in a position where she needed another source of income, and she’d asked a local psychic if he could tell her where that might come from. He said he saw jars in her future.
She thought about that for a minute, and then she asked, “Does that mean that I’m going to have a jelly business?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I see a lot of little jars.”
Johnson went back to her house in Half Moon Bay, California, made a few more batches of jam and thought about that. She was already making her Spread the Love jams in a small way with a cottage food permit, but it was less a business than a hobby that paid for itself with sales to a couple of local restaurants. I’ve been making jam most of my life. From the time I was a kid, my mother would tell me to go pick blackberries with your brother, and then we’d make blackberry jelly, she says. Despite a small but growing fan base, Spread the Love didn’t bring in enough money for Johnson to quit any of the patchwork of part-time jobs she’d put together to support herself through the recession, and the cottage food permit put serious restrictions on her production and sales capacity. Grocery stores wouldn’t buy her products without a commercial license behind them, and even some farmers markets wouldn’t let her sell without a commercial license. Those obstacles held her back, but they couldn’t stop her. But then, dealing with adversity is in Johnson’s blood.
Her great-grandfather, a Japanese immigrant, was the first Farm Bureau president in Turlock, California, until he died of influenza during the Great Pandemic of 1918. Her great-grandmother decided she couldn’t raise her daughters on the farm alone, so she sold the land and returned to Japan with her children in 1921. Years later, she arranged a marriage for one of her daughters, Johnson’s grandmother, to a man of Japanese descent who was living and working in San Francisco, returning Johnson’s ancestry to California. Farming came back into her heritage when her grandparents resettled onto a farm in Pescadero where her grandfather grew vegetables until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which uprooted the family again.
“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and…the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion,” the order read. “The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary…. ”
In the case of Johnson’s grandparents, the “food, shelter, and other accommodations” that were provided were at the Topaz internment camp in central Utah. It’s now a museum, but more than 11,000 people of Japanese descent were held prisoner there between September 11, 1942 and October 31, 1945. Today, of course, the internment of Americans of Japanese descent is considered one of the great Civil Rights violations in American history.
After Johnson’s grandparents were released, they returned to California and settled in San Gregorio, about 40 miles south of San Francisco and only about seven miles up the road from the home they’d left behind in Pescadero. There they farmed produce until a government once again ordered their dislocation.
In addition to the release of Americans held in internment camps, the end of World War II also brought about a shift in the U.S. food system from local to national and global food sources. That globalization continues: U.S. imports of food products have grown over the past few decades because of many factors that include the growing immigrant population in the U.S., improvements in shipping and quarantine methods and the implementation of free-trade agreements. In 2013, the value of United States’ food imports topped $109 billion, with an average annual growth of 7.9 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to the USDA.
The way Americans regard their local farmers and farms has changed as well. The state of California took Johnson’s grandfather’s farm in an eminent domain action in the late 1970s with the intention of paving it over to put up a parking lot. Johnson was 14.
“That was crazy and unfathomable,” she says. After that happened, her grandparents lost heart for farming. They thought, What’s the use, if it can all be taken away.
As it happened, the parking lot was never built, and today, the land lies fallow, covered by sagebrush and coyote brush. “It saddens me every time I drive by,” Johnson says.
With the farm gone, Johnson’s family became part of another trend that continues today. In 2012, the United States had 2.1 million farms – down 4.3 percent from 2007. Between 2007 and 2012, the amount of farmland in the U.S. declined from 922 million acres to 915 million acres, the third-smallest five year decline in the number of acres in American farm production since 1950.
Johnson herself has given some thought to trying life on a farm again, perhaps to grow some of the fruit for her jam-making, but California’s real estate market has put that dream out of reach. “For me now, land is hard to come by, and it’s super-expensive to lease or rent,” she says. “Here is my way to contribute to the agricultural community, by purchasing the fruit for the jams and jellies I make locally.”
After the psychic’s words planted the seed, Johnson made it bear fruit with a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough capital to start a serious food business. “I bought a pallet of jars and a pallet of lids and my commercial license,” she says.
Obtaining a commercial license required her to move her operation out of her home kitchen and into a real commercial processing kitchen. Like about 30 other small food business owners, Johnson chose KitchenTown, an 11,000 square foot shared-space processing kitchen in San Mateo, California, a suburb of San Francisco. It’s owned by Rusty Schwartz and Alberto Solis, who opened it in September, 2015, to serve the needs of small food producers. “Local is the new organic. The market wants locally made small-batch products. We’re just responding to that need,” Schwartz says. “Those companies are out there – there are tons of companies that want to do this.”
Before Schwartz and Solis were business partners, they were bicycling partners. Both of them were living in Oakland, and out on long bicycle rides, they’d have conversations about their common interests in food and entrepreneurship and how they were both looking for new opportunities in the food business. “We were just at that stage in our careers,” Solis says. He has been the National Sales Manager for FERMIN and then for The Rogers Collection. “For 25 years, I was in the specialty food import business,” he says. From that vantage point, he’d started to see the resurgence of interest in local foods and local producers, and at the same time, he was meeting people at his local farmers market who wanted to make food, and they were doing some very creative things. And to be truthful, he was tired of eating airport food, since he was doing a lot of traveling with his sales jobs, he says.
Schwartz was a serial entrepreneur, in business with small consumer products companies for his entire career. “I found myself consulting, and I sort of fell into food,” he says. He found some of his consulting clients at local farmers markets. “I started seeing these companies popping up at the farmers market, and I started writing business plans for them and then realized that these companies didn’t have a way to scale up,” he says. “You can cook at home, but not for very long. You need to find a commercial kitchen to work in.”
The biggest obstacle between a would-be food entrepreneur and a commercial kitchen is usually money, Schwartz says. It costs about $250,000 to build a small commercial kitchen. A small company doesn’t have that kind of money, and banks won’t lend it to an entrepreneur who doesn’t have a track record yet. The idea behind the incubator is that it provides a shared space where entrepreneurs can work until their business is producing enough revenue either to finance their own kitchen or to interest a co-packer in working with them. “We came up with the idea of creating that place where food makers could scale up,” Solis says.
The two friends decided to partner up and started looking around Oakland for a building they could turn into a kitchen incubator. “We decided to focus on one thing, so we built with that in mind, buying particular types of equipment that packaged food producers need, as opposed to what caterers need: a piston filler, production-scale rack ovens as opposed to a smaller convection oven, tilt skillets, weigh scales. That’s the type of equipment that we invest in,” Schwartz says. “There are no other spaces around that are specifically designed for packaged goods. They need to have more storage capacity, forklifts, a freight area so distributors can pick up product. You really have to allow producers to have a time slot that they come in regularly, and you have to commit to them.”
They found available warehouse space that they thought about converting, but found that the cost of installing kitchen infrastructure into those buildings was prohibitive. Then they heard that Anna’s Danish Cookies was for sale in San Mateo. The cookie bakery operated in its own building but was only using part of its space, and it already had all the utilities infrastructure needed for a commercial kitchen. “I was aware of that brand,” Solis says. “We bought Anna’s Cookies even though we didn’t know the first thing about making cookies. But we learned very fast.”
Napa Cookie Company
It took the partners only six months to build out Anna’s Cookies bakery into KitchenTown. The nascent incubator kitchen even came with its first maker, Napa Cookie Company, which had already had an arrangement with Anna’s Cookies to share its bakery after the company had grown out of the catering kitchen in which Burt and Melissa Teaff had started their bakery business. Their Wine Snaps had become a retail product rather than just an item on their catering menu when customers started asking if they could buy more of the tasty cookies that the Teaffs served as a sweet-savory treat to accompany red and white wines. “It put the idea in our head that we should take them to market,” Burt Teaff says. “We didn’t know anything about baking cookies. We knew how to feed 350 people. We didn’t know how to make cookies or have a retail company…. We developed a product with the clients, hired a graphics company to design the packaging and launched in 2009.” In 2011, the market for their Wine Snaps had grown to the point at which the Teaffs had to find a bigger kitchen, and they moved into the Anna’s Cookies bakery. “The move made it a lot easier to make the cookies, so we have more time. When we were doing them at home, they were hand-cut,” Burt Teaff says. “We’re now able to make more of them and spend more time marketing and go out to stores and do demos. It freed us up to do marketing.”
Nine months after opening as an incubator, KitchenTown had 27 companies using the space, and Schwartz and Solis were getting two calls a day from new start-ups looking for a home. The KitchenTown tenants include four services that deliver pre-packaged dinners or dinner ingredients, a maker of almond milk, a baby food company, an olive oil company that blends and bottles in the kitchen, several companies that make energy bars, one that makes non-dairy ice cream and one that makes crackers. “We’re not full; we can still add to that,” Schwartz says. “The brand new start-ups are coming in once a week for a few hours, and on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got companies that come in for an eight-hour shift five days a week.”
It’s not by coincidence that KitchenTown hosts a wide range of companies: Schwartz and Solis have intentionally offered the space to diverse kinds of food producers. “Partly because it’s more interesting for the community,” Schwartz says. “They’re looking for community; they really thrive in a place where there are other food companies doing the same thing. They’re learning from each other, and there are efficiencies too. They can source products together,” he says. “It’s really interesting. We’re a start-up, so it’s a start-up of start-ups. It’s much more complex than running my other businesses. They’re all start-ups. There’s a lot of energy, a lot to do. It’s far more complicated than I thought it would be – a lot of personalities, the principals of all these companies and their employees as well.”
Local Food Movement Feeds Incubators
Kitchen incubators like KitchenTown that have been popping up across the country over the past few years. The increase in numbers is partly driven by fears about the prevailing food system and Americans’ desire to know more about the source of their food, including who raised it, according to Ken Meter, President of Crossroads Resource Center, a nonprofit consulting and technical assistance group addressing farm and food economies. “People feel quite vulnerable. I’ve worked in Hawaii, where people realize that they’re several thousand miles from their food sources, but I’ve also worked in South Carolina, where 95 percent of the food is imported, even though parts of that state have four growing seasons. People need access to the information and tools that make it possible to decide which foods they want to grow and eat, instead of accepting whatever someone decides to ship them,” he says. “Many urban communities started making this shift 40 years ago, looking for a healthier diet. Then rural communities began to realize that the food they eat comes from far away, while farmers ship the foods they grow somewhere else.”
“Commercial kitchens provide a place where small processors can turn their raw products into value-added foods that have a longer shelf life,” he added. “This provides more chances to sell each item.”
Although it’s clear that there’s been a tremendous increase in interest in shared-use kitchen incubators over the past four or five years, it’s difficult to know exactly how many there are, particularly since the definition of a kitchen incubator is fluid. In some cases, the phrase means that a restaurateur has opened his kitchen to other users when the restaurant is closed. In other cases, it’s a kitchen operated by a nonprofit agency that’s focused on workforce development. Many that have opened over the past several years, though, are more like KitchenTown – commercial processing kitchens that allow for production of a variety of food products and that qualify as state- or federally-inspected food production facilities. Econsult Solutions, a consultancy advising on economics, policy and strategy, identified at least 135 shared-use commercial kitchen facilities across the U.S. in 2013 and noted great interest among venture capital investors in funneling money into food projects. “Increasingly multi-sector maker spaces are including food-industry facilities or full-scale kitchen incubators in their models,” Econsult Solutions noted in a report on the phenomenon.
“For initiatives that don’t start with deep pockets, you start small, and as you need to add capacity, you grow as sales allow or as you can access capital,” Meter says. “It depends on the support network you’ve been able to build. No kitchen is sustainable without a network of producers and customers, and building this can take time.”
There are a variety of models for the ownership and management of these operations; some, like KitchenTown, are private enterprises, while others are affiliated with universities, and still others are not-for-profit enterprises operating in low-income or immigrant communities. The facilities they provide range from raw space with utilities through spaces that include equipment for various types of food production to facilities that also offer a range of technical assistance to new entrepreneurs who may need help designing a business plan or complying with permitting and licensing requirements.
Mustard Seed Sauces
Early in 2013, Craig Carter, Founder and CEO of Mustard Seed Sauces, found himself in a situation similar to that Napa Cookie Company had experienced a few years earlier: he had a product that he knew he could sell to foodservice customers, since the customers at Mustard Seed and Noodle Express Restaurants in Montana and Washington had been enjoying the Mustard Seed sauces and dressings for 35 years. He and his business partner, who owns the restaurants, wanted to take the sauces they were preparing daily in their restaurants to the retail market, but they didn’t have the means to do it on their own. “The obstacles were in learning how to produce a product that the Food and Drug Administration and state regulatory issues will allow you to do. Once we started digging into the restrictions in that area, it was very plain to us that we were going to have to go to school and learn how to produce a shelf-stable product. We were going to have to get a package. We were going to have to label,” Carter says. “But the primary obstacle was to get into an FDA-approved kitchen without having to put up half a million dollars.”
He found that kitchen in Ronan, Montana, a tiny community in northwestern Montana with a population of 1,871 people at the 2010 census. “They had the ability to help us go to school, so to speak, and how to do this without a tremendous financial investment ourselves,” Carter says.
Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center
The Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan is owned and operated by the Lake County Community Development Corporation, a regional economic development authority. It’s one of four food and development centers in the state of Montana that’s funded by the state of Montana, says Jan Tusick, who’s been a spearhead for the facility since before it was built at the turn of the 21st century. A farmer who produces sheep, garlic and onions, she worked with other farmers in the area to found Mission Valley Organic Growers in 1999. They enlisted the Alternative Energy Resource Organization to help them do a community food assessment to identify the steps they needed to take to change a food system in which they were growing food that they couldn’t sell. They knew that to sell their farm products to commercial buyers, they had to figure out how to aggregate their produce into a quantity and variety that buyers could use; they had to develop a marketing program; they had to figure out how to preserve a seasonal, perishable product until their buyers were ready to cook it and serve it. “We found that it was really challenging because of lack of infrastructure,” she says.
That’s a problem that’s common among those who set out to develop a local food system. The USDA has identified barriers to local food market entry and expansion that include capacity constraints for small farms and a lack of distribution systems for moving local food into mainstream markets as well as a lack of knowledge of how to go about marketing local food.
Like the growers who banded together as Mission Valley Organic Growers, most farms in the U.S. are small. In 2012, 75 percent of American farms had sales of less than $50,000 – more than half of all American farmers have another job that provides a paycheck they depend on. To build a local food system in western Montana, the farmers decided that they were going to have to build a processing facility. “We did this facility in three phases: it 2000 and 2001, we got some grants to build the first small kitchen. Then we continued to expand through grant programs,” Tusick says. “It took 10 years to establish the core infrastructure, and then we added more equipment. Montana’s Growth Through Agriculture program has helped buy numerous pieces of equipment to meet the needs of our clients.”
Today, the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center is a 13,000 square-foot processing facility that offers technical assistance to about 160 clients a year and production space to about 30 food producers in any given month. Western Montana Growers Cooperative, another farmers cooperative that formed out of this organizational drive, uses the facility as a hub for its Farm to School program. “We process the products that they take to the schools: chopped broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts. Some products are fresh, and there’s a line of frozen products,” Tusick says.
The facility is divided into activity areas. There’s a kitchen with two 100-gallon water-jacketed kettles that are used by clients who make barbecue sauce, hot sauce and cherry jams and vinegar. Another smaller kitchen has two 40-gallon water-jacketed kettles for the folks who are making their sauces in smaller quantities. There’s a harvest wash area for fresh produce, a US Department of Agriculture-inspected meat room that’s a home away from home for Bill Stoianoff and Uncle Bill’s Sausages and a dry fill room that’s used by a client who’s making and selling a line of fine coffees.
The facility has been a catalyst for the development of the regional food economy that its founders dreamed about when they started trying to figure out how to get food from their fields to families’ forks. The pancake mix company operating in the facility uses grain raised in Montana; another company is using Montana-grown lentils as an ingredient. “When people buy local food, if we could get 15 percent of the food dollar back to the local community, that’s $66 million in new wealth…. Those dollars are rotating back into the local economy versus going out,” Tusick says. “It’s a 20,000-feet high look at the food industry, but it resonates with people. It’s kind of common sense. If you spend your dollar locally, it’s going to stay local.” According to the USDA, there’s more than common sense to back up that idea. Empirical research has shown that expanding local food systems in a community can increase employment and income in that community.
With the Food and Drug Administration starting to put new rules coming out of the Food Safety Modernization Act into effect, Tusick echoes the concerns that brought Craig Carter to the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center: “We’ve always been firm believers that every community needs infrastructure for entrepreneurial development. Especially with food production, the regulatory requirements are so rigid that people can’t comply on their own…. We’re having to help these small-scale producers get up to speed. It’s been quite a scope of work.”
Uncle Bill’s Sausages
Bill Stoianoff moved the production of his Uncle Bill’s Sausages into the Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center nine years ago with technical assistance from the Lake County Community Development Corporation, which owns the center, to help him get his U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses in order. “You have to have every word in the right place, and these people are really, really good at helping,” he says.
Before moving into Mission Mountain, he’d been making his sausages in the back of another man’s butcher shop, and that meant that he could sell them only at local farmers markets – grocery retailers wouldn’t touch a product that wasn’t made in a USDA-inspected meat processing facility. “To do USDA, you have to be perfect. But once you’re certified, people will buy it because they know it comes from a completely clean situation,” he says. “I’m trying to supply the local grocery stores, and it’s working quite well.”
This is a fairly large facility, he adds. Today, I’m in the packaging room with Junior [an employee that Stoianoff hired through Job Corps], weighing out the sausages and packaging them and into the freezer they go. They’ll be in the stores tomorrow.
Wozz! Kitchen Creations
“I’m an Australian in America, winning with a Mexican condiment,” Warrick Dowsett, Owner and Chef of Wozz! Kitchen Creations said as he accepted the Specialty Food Association’s 2015 sofi Award for Outstanding Condiment for his Kiwi Lime Salsa Verde. “God bless America!” That awards ceremony was the latest part of a journey that has taken the Australian food entrepreneur back and forth and back and forth around the world.
Dowsett had been working as a private chef aboard a yacht and had found that the guests he was feeding liked the gourmet sauces he was making. And then he met an American girl and eventually married her. While the couple waited for the eight months it was going to take for Ashley to get her registered nurse’s license in Australia, they decided to bottle their sauces for retail sale. “We thought we might be able to turn this into a real business,” Dowsett says. “I wanted to run my own business. Because I was traveling, and the girl I met was from a different country, trying to open a restaurant was impossible.” Warrick and Ashley Dowsett started Wozz! Kitchen Creations in Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region in December of 2010.
After two years in Australia, the couple decided that they wanted to move back to the States to be closer to Ashley’s family, so Warrick applied for his green card and they packed up their bags and their recipes and moved to New England to stay with Ashley’s parents while they found a new home of their own and relaunched their business. “The first thing we did when we touched down was start looking for a kitchen,” Dowsett says. They thought they could perhaps find something similar to the kitchen they had in Australia, which was a commercial kitchen whose primary function was as a not-for-profit commissary for a Meals on Wheels program. “It had the space and lots of ovens,” Dowsett says. “It was all stove top kitchen, and we were filling jars by hand.”
What they found, just across the White Mountains from Ashley’s family’s home, was the Vermont Food Venture Center, which had opened its doors in 2011 and was fully operational at the beginning of 2012. “It was a real saving grace,” Dowsett says. “We settled and ended up living in the area and found work in the area, and all those decisions were based on where the Food Venture Center was, so it changed everything in our lives…. We looked at other options, but they weren’t equipped for how seriously we were taking our business.”
“We were really looking for something we could grow into,” he continues. “Once we looked with that in mind, there weren’t many options…. The Venture Center surpassed anything we thought we’d find, so it was a very easy decision to make.”
The couple had their business operating again in January 2013, and almost immediately started impressing some of America’s most demanding critics with their line of ethnic condiments with a fusion twist. Wozz! Kitchen Creations was a three-time sofi Finalist in 2014 for Ginger Soy Infusion, in the Outstanding Dressing category; for Triple Ale Onion Spread in the Outstanding Condiment Category; and for Spiced Beet Finishing Vinegar in the Outstanding Vinegar category. The Triple Ale Onion Spread won the sofi Award for Outstanding Condiment of 2014. The Ginger Soy Infusion won the sofi Award for Outstanding Dressing of 2014. Then, a year later, their Kiwi Lime Salsa Verde was named Outstanding Salsa or Dip for 2015.
The Dowsetts are in a kitchen at the Vermont Food Venture Center once a week for a 12-hour day. “The food processing equipment is very industrial,” Dowsett says. “It’s bigger, and it speeds up everything, which when you’re paying by the hour is pretty important.”
The hourly rental charges to use the space and equipment are steep enough to force the Dowsetts to be very efficient in how they use their time at the Food Venture Center. “By the fact that they’re not cheap, you’ve got to go in with a serious plan. A lot of people go in with a bit of a food dream, a bit romantic. With an incubator, having a bit of a background certainly helps. Because it’s expensive, you’ve got to hit your targets,” he says. “It’s made us much more competitive, to always be looking at the big picture…. As you grow, all of a sudden, you’re dealing with costs you weren’t counting on. With this, we’re always having those costs in our face. It’s made us really efficient producers.”
Having the Vermont Food Venture Center as a resource has made it possible for Dowsett to make his award-winning products without compromising on quality or the range of his line. “We have a large product line. Getting cheaper glass or labels or ingredients is great if you do six products. But for us, every product has a different ethnicity, a different set of ingredients,” he says. “With the Food Venture Center, it can grow with us. As our most popular products get more volume, we can expand those parts of the product line.”
When Dowsett isn’t in the kitchen making and bottling his condiments, he’s usually on the road. “I’m still traveling, getting the brand and the product out there. I’m on the road all the time, selling, promoting and even just sourcing ingredients and that sort of thing. After all the moving and constant travel, we’ve bought a house. We have a garden and a veggie patch, and we’re getting out in the sunshine,” he says. “Not living out of a suitcase has its merits, and I was ready for the change, so this could be a permanent thing.”
Vermont Food Venture Center
The Vermont Food Venture Center is located in Hardwick, Vermont, which had a population of 3,010 at the 2010 U.S. Census. The town’s population had a median income of $33,636 per household and a per capita income of $14,813.
The Vermont Food Venture Center started as an economic development effort with money set aside by Vermont’s Congressional delegation that allowed the center to start in an office building, but over time, that office space had deteriorated to the point at which it was no longer usable. “The building was completely depreciated – that would be the kind term. It was either going to close or to move,” says Jasper Hill Farm Cheesemaker Mateo Kehler, a long-term anchor tenant at the Food Venture Center. “There’s a group of us that got together to organize the transition into our community, and to facilitate that, we signed a contract to lease space. That was in 2007 or 2008 And then the economy went down.”
“When the economy crashed, American Restoration and Recovery Act money became available,” says Sarah Waring, the Executive Director of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, the nonprofit organization that now owns and operates the Vermont Food Venture Center. “We were focused on how food could add value to our local economy. We jumped up and down at the opportunity.”
With $2 million in federal and state grants to work with, the Center for an Agricultural Economy authorized the start of construction on the building in 2010, and the Vermont Food Venture Center opened its doors in 2011. It is a 15,000 square-foot building with facilities to process shelf-stable food products. It’s not USDA-inspected, so no meat or dairy products can be produced there. It has three shared kitchens, each with different specialty industrial equipment, that rent for between $28 and $35 per hour and two long-term anchor tenants, Jasper Hill Farm, which produces award-winning artisan cheeses, and Grassroots Distribution, a local brewer. The two anchor tenants have their own spaces that are isolated from the shared-use facilities. About 30-50 clients per year operate in the shared space, making products that range from Wozz! Kitchen Creations’ condiments to chocolate truffles, baby food and dog biscuits. “All of them are very different in the way they use the building,” Waring says.
The Food Venture Center provides space and equipment and offers food safety training and advice on regulatory compliance, food business planning, marketing and how to scale up a food business from cottage industry to commercial endeavor. “Networking is part of what we emphasize here,” Waring says. “A lot of people are directly working with each other so they can buy things in bulk. We want them to understand that working together can help them save money, but also help them grow. For instance, if two of them are using the same distributor to deliver their merchandise to the same places, they can save on trucking charges by packing their merchandise in the same pallets. That’s part of what’s so great about all being in one building together.”
Most of the center’s incubator clients come from Vermont, but some have come from as far away as Virginia, drawn by word of mouth contact with existing clients, sometimes through the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show and sofi Awards program or at a conference, Waring says. “We work very closely with other food business incubators in the state and the region. Some of us are for-profit, some are nonprofit, some are connected with school systems. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to increase our learning as shared-use kitchens.”
Connecting Specialty Food Businesses to Farms
The Vermont Food Venture Center represents only a part of the activities of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, which originally started about 10 years ago with the mission of making a sustainable and healthy local food system, according to Waring. “We started by working with local schools, looking to get more connection between schools and fresh, local food,” she says. “Then we realized that a lot of what was happening in rural areas was that the lack of good jobs was putting people in a place where they couldn’t access local food, even if it was available. They simply couldn’t afford it.”
The organization started making plans to grow their economy so that citizens could afford to put local food on their tables. “When we did that study, we really discovered that it was time to look at bigger-picture things that we could do,” Waring says. That’s how the idea of starting a kitchen incubator came up. “We are trying to break down the barriers for farmers, who are local, to sell to local institutions. There could be delivery constraints. It could be that the vegetables need extra washing before they can go to schools…. We try to open that data so we can open the market to farmers.”
The organization also provides business education for local farmers, offering classes in how to make a marketing plan, crop enterprise analysis, transition plans for farmers who are ready to retire and need a plan for how the farm could continue to operate. “Our basic goal is to be a technical service provider for farmers,” Waring says. “We are part of a network of providers across the state that includes the Agricultural Extension Service and other organizations like ours to provide technical assistance…. We’ve been in this for only 3-1/2 years at this point. It’s still all pretty new for us. But we have been able to secure new markets for farmers. We are seeing evidence that this could be a viable addition to their revenue stream so that they can be sustainable on the land. That’s a goal.”
“Farmers are having to learn to be more and more diversified, and that’s what we’re here to help with,” she continues. “No one farm in Vermont has all the answers; they’re all doing lots and lots of things.”
Jasper Hill Farm
“Jasper Hill Farm’s mission is the conservation of the working landscape of our community,” says Mateo Kehler. He and his brother Andy operate Jasper Hill as a dairy and farmstead cheese operation and the home of the Cellars at Jasper Hill, an aging facility for cheeses made at Jasper Hill as well as cheeses made by other makers. Cellars at Jasper Hill cheeses won multiple awards from the American Cheese Society this year alone, including a third place in the Best of Show category for Harbison, which also won the first place award for a soft-ripened cheese made from cow milk. Additional awards included two first place awards for Cabot Clothbound Cheddars aged at the Cellars, a first place in the category for farmstead cheeses aged 60 days with 39 percent or higher moisture for Winnimere, a second place in the category for soft-ripened washed-rind cheeses for Willoughby and a second place in the category for a washed-rind cheese made from cow milk for Alpha Tolman.
Andy Kehler serves on the Vermont Food Venture Center’s board of directors, and Mateo is the official tenant who has a 10-year lease on 5,200 square feet of space that the brothers have turned into a modern well-equipped cheese facility. “It’s a space that we’re using to incubate cheeses and cheesemakers that then move on to other farms in the area,” Mateo says. “We’re about to transition our first cheese out of the Food Venture Center onto a new farm in Greensboro that will be built in 2016 to 2017.”
That cheese is Alpha Tolman, which will be moving out of the Vermont Food Venture Center and into a creamery that’s specifically designed and constructed to produce that one cheese. As it moves, its cheesemaker will move with it along with the equipment from the Vermont Food Venture Center facility that’s used for that particular cheese and the associated cash flow from the sales it has generated. By the time it moves out of the Food Venture Center, it’ll already have a market and it’ll be generating the cash flow to pay for the costs of building its creamery. “The idea is that we’re derisking the start-up of farmstead cheese businesses,” Mateo says.
As Alpha Tolman moves out of the Food Venture Center, its place is being taken by Harbison, the newly developed cheese that so impressed the American Cheese Society judges. “We’re going to be scaling the production of Harbison up over the next two years,” Mateo says. As production scales up, cash flow will increase, and in two years, that cheese will also move out of the Food Venture Center. It will be going to Andersonville Farm, which became part of the plan last year, when the Kehlers bought it in partnership with James Coe, who grew up on the farm before leaving Vermont to become an architect, marry and start his family. He and his wife Nella, also an architect, practiced their profession on the West Coast before moving back to Vermont in 2009 with their two children. Coe went to work for Jasper Hill, working on its expansion projects as it grew, designing a Jasper Hill creamery and working on the cheese caves of the Cellars at Jasper Hill. When the farmer who’d taken over operation at Andersonville Farm decided to retire last year, Coe and his wife partnered with the Kehlers to purchase the farm along with its producing dairy herd. “We had a champion – someone who wanted to take this project on and manage the business there, and we’ve partnered with Jamie and his family,” Mateo says. “He grew up in the Anderson Valley and has an emotional connection to the land there, and he’s going to be the next steward of the land there…. It’s unclear that the farm would have been able to survive without cheese as an economic multiplier to that land base.”
That milk is now going to the Food Venture Center to make Harbison, and once Harbison is generating enough sales to justify the cheese plant, it’ll become a farmstead cheese, made on the farm where the animals that provide the milk for it are raised. “We’re building a cheese business in which the farm doesn’t have to do this huge capital outlay at the beginning. It’s so hard to get into this business and to scale,” Mateo says. “What we’re trying to do is lower the barriers to entry and to plug a bunch of acreage in our community into the production of artisan cheese but to do it without having to lay out all the capital.”
The ultimate plan is to build an artisan cheese business that will outlast the Kehler brothers themselves, Mateo says. “There’s something that’s compelling about developing multiple producers of a single product in a tight geography,” he says. “We’re working on shifting the identity from the producer to the product, and we’re hoping that over time we’ll create the circumstances in which the cheese will survive the people, so it becomes less about the cult of personality and more about the cheese and the place it’s produced. That’s a big cultural tradition.”