Have you ever thought about making and selling that special dish or condiment or baked good that everyone you know begs you to make over and over? Do you have what it takes to be a food entrepreneur, autonomous and self-employed? If you think all you need to do is put on a white jacket and go for it, you’ll be in for some surprises. As Robert Gropper of My Brother Bobby’s Salsa in Poughkeepsie said, “It’s not an easy path with a direct route.” He has found, being in business since 1993, that “about every two months someone calls to see how to get into the business.”
One of the first places to check out is the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship at Cornell University. Its website, https://necfe.foodscience.cals.cornell.edu, takes you through some of the process. Also, the New York Small Food Processors’ Association (https://nyssfpa.com) has good guidelines. Click on the Resource Center. Read carefully about the food regulations, permits, food safety and labeling requirements that are necessary and different for each state and sometimes for each county. Stay aware of possible contradictory information; though it is all there, occasionally it can be a slippery slope.
Besides a clear concept and your recipes, you need a kitchen. For certain items you can use your regular home kitchen. Call the Agriculture and Markets Food Safety office in Newburgh at (845) 220-2047 and describe what it is you are thinking of producing and find out the basic requirements. If you go to the website for New York State Agriculture and Markets at https://agriculture.ny.gov and do a search for Home Processors, you will find the list of what is allowable.
You can make bakery products such as bread, rolls, cookies, cakes, brownies, fudge, double-crusted fruit pies, but no birthday cakes; traditional jams, jellies and marmalades with high-acid/low-pH fruits; repack/blend commercial dried spices or herbs; popcorn, caramel corn and peanut brittle; candies, except tempered chocolate or melts for molds or drippings. You can only sell these homemade products at farmers’ markets, farms, farmstands, greenmarkets, craft fairs and flea markets, but not directly from your home or website, and only in New York State. If none of those are what you have in mind, you need a commercial kitchen to test and produce your product and a 20-C license, for which you will pay $400 every 2 years.
Across the country, culinary incubator kitchens and shared commercial kitchens are popping up to serve the needs of food entrepreneurs. There aren’t any locally, but there is a need. An incubator kitchen is a place that provides a licensed commercial kitchen facility to prepare food products. It can also be a place where someone simply needs a stove to prepare items to sell at a farmers’ market. Or it can be a place that provides business hopefuls a space and full education with kitchen equipment and advice on marketing, branding, sales, distribution, technical assistance, connections, meeting state health regulations and creating a business plan. It’s structured to help a food business from concept to growth.
Generally, these kitchens support the early stages of a food business. The facilities are shared and have hourly fees. Most kitchen incubators claim to exist to educate, encourage and nurture food businesses, and are non-profits that have raised money from public and private sources. The fortunes of the incubators are tied in with the member entrepreneurs. Most hold workshops on sourcing, financial management and securing capital. They are a boon to low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs. Generally a $250 deposit is required, and most charge an hourly rate of around $25. Interest in this model has been growing steadily in the Hudson Valley. The summer is a boon for kitchen incubators.
Another type of kitchen incubator is based on the Airbnb model that connects food entrepreneurs with owners of underutilized kitchens. The main expense, then, is to reimburse them for any utility and administrative costs. In some locations the rents are subsidized. The workflow needs to be managed to connect with a common dashboard and, in some cases, help with securing licenses. Local business opportunities exist for someone to develop a local food enterprise, source available kitchens for rental or start and administrate an incubator kitchen for food entrepreneurs.
Albane Sharrad of Crosstown Sweets, a maker of fine jams and jellies from local fruits since 2011, says that she “started her business in Woodstock with a home processor license. That was pretty simple to do, but working from a home kitchen is restrictive in what you can make and also where you can sell. It’s a good start, but temporary, so access to a commercial kitchen is key as businesses grow.” She is in the process of moving her production to a commercial kitchen in New York City, since there is nothing available locally. “We could definitely use a shared commercial kitchen up there,” she stated in an e-mail.
Two kitchens in this general area currently exist: One is the new EaT Kitchen (https://sullivancce.org/food-nutrition/eat-kitchen), an entrepreneurial and teaching kitchen about one-and-a-half hours west at the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Sullivan County, located at 64 Ferndale-Loomis Road in Liberty. Maria Grimaldi, the current president of the New York Small Food Processors’ Association, was instrumental in creating this kitchen after the CCE received a grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). An older one in Columbia County is Hometown Foods, LLC, located at 362 Eichybush Road in Kinderhook and owned by retired home economics teacher Anna Dawson (https://www.ourhometownfoods.com).
There are others in the planning stages. Philmont, in Columbia County, will have a kitchen incubator soon, according to Sally Baker, the co-founder and executive director of Philmont Beautification, who said, “We are planning to have a commercial kitchen to serve local farmers, chefs, bakers, food-processors and new food businesses, along with programming for children and families.”
Elizabeth Ryan at Stone Ridge Orchards hopes to include a commercial community kitchen in the food hub that she is constructing, where, besides food entrepreneurs renting it, she hopes that individuals can make things from items purchased at the orchard, like applesauce, in large quantities for themselves and not for sale. She said, “I also envision its use as a canning kitchen for people who have small kitchens, or as a catering kitchen.” It’s a do-it-yourself approach with some on-hand technical support. She added, “It could be a place where farm market end-of-day perishables could be made into soup and given to food pantries and soup kitchens.” Ryan can foresee its use as a teaching kitchen as well.
John Novi, the longtime owner/chef at the Depuy Canal House in High Falls, is also hoping to turn the kitchen there into a teaching kitchen with classes for local famers and chefs-to-be, and for product development. He has a long relationship with the farms of the area and serves on the Board of the Rondout Valley Growers’ Association. Chef Novi has informed the farmers over the years with suggestions about growing diverse produce. In 1969 he suggested that they grow yellow tomatoes, and now they can’t grow enough. He also fostered the idea to grow fava beans and fennel locally.
Beth Linskey, of Beth’s Farm Kitchen, has been making jams for 30 years in Stuyvesant. She too thinks that “we really need to have a shared commercial kitchen in this area so people can make and sell their products.” Linskey added her hope that “more people will make items using local ingredients.” She uses all local fruits and has received grants for her value-added products. She turns local farm fruits into jam. Value-added means that the physical state of a raw commodity is transformed; thus value is added. It’s mostly a term that applies to farmers’ products.
The Saunderskill Farm in Accord has a 20-C licensed kitchen that owner Dan Schoonmaker says “helps to round out what we can sell.” He has a farmstand store that opened for the season April 1, to sell the Farm’s own value-added cookies, pies, turnovers, prepared foods (eggplant parmesan, mac and cheese), daily soups and sandwiches. So does the Davenport Farm in Stone Ridge, selling value-added products like local and organic breads and baking supplies, cheeses et cetera at its farmstand store. Both cook with their own produce. These kitchens are not available for food entrepreneurs who want to develop a specialty food – nor should they be.
The first thing that a food entrepreneur needs to do is assess the market. You need to produce a consistent product with the same quality each time. A standardized recipe is critical to ensure consistency and maintain cost control. Test your recipes and get feedback for the product, and test market at stores.
Once you have your recipe(s) set to your satisfaction, you’ll be required to apply for a Scheduled Process to determine several things, including whether it is shelf-stable and for how long. The Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship is where you go for that. It will check exactly how you made your product and sometimes correct the process. If you have an item that is always refrigerated, you won’t need the Scheduled Process, so it has been said. You will also need a food safety course and liability insurance, and a business plan, especially if you want to do any fundraising. You might want to consult with the Mid-Hudson Small Business Development Center (https://mid-hudson.nyssbdc.org) for some advice and counseling.
Think too about branding and packaging. Presentation is important. It’s worth it to hire a good graphic and packaging designer. If you are interested in farms and the future of local agriculture and economy, you might want to check out the Farm On! Foundation (https://farmonfoundation.org).
At some point you will need to decide if you are going to continue to make your product yourself or hire a co-packer who will make, package and label your product for you according to your recipe and specifications. There are a few in the area: Farm to Table Co-packer in Kingston, Pika’s Farm Table in Lake Katrine and Beth’s Farm Kitchen in Stuyvesant. Doing this will allow you to concentrate your efforts on marketing and sales. It’s what Paul Newman did, and you know that story.
If you have a plan to do anything with meat, fish or cheese, there are additional specific regulations. For instance, two local smoked fish purveyors, Lenny Bee’s Productions in Bearsville and Skip Card at Hookline Fish Company in West Hurley, both confirmed the long list of regulations required to run their businesses. The Food and Drug Administration comes by regularly to inspect their facilities, and each different item for sale has to be sent for a Scheduled Process every two years. The main food safety concern is for salt content and cooking to specific internal temperatures to eliminate listeria.
For funding assistance and general advice, you can contact the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation (https://www.hvadc.org). Noticed on its website is an announcement for two grants from the USDA under the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP): one that supports the planning and development and expansion of local and regional food business enterprises for $5,000 to $25,000, and another for implementation to expand access to healthy food and support rural economies for $25,000 to $100,000.
A quick Internet search brought up loans from the Sam Adams Brewery to “support small business owners pursuing their passion in the food and beverage, hospitality and craft brewing industries.” You can attend seminars or take crash-course training. Whole Foods helps to secure low-interest loans. The Local Food Lab (https://www.localfoodlab.com) offers three-day intensive business courses for food startups for a (hefty) fee of $1,250. The next one is in New York City from July 10 to 12.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County (CCEUC) will be holding a class on Food Entrepreneurship at the CCEUC Education Center at 232 Plaza Road in Kingston on June 19 from 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon. Elizabeth Keller Sullivan of the Cornell University Food Venture Center in Geneva will speak on food safety and sound manufacturing practices and the Food Venture Center as a resource; John Lukor from New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets will speak about regulatory issues related to starting a food business; and Luc or Pika, from Pika’s Farm Table in Lake Katrine, will talk about starting their own food business, as well as their co-packing facility.
The fee is $25 per person. To register, go to the CCEUC website at https://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/events/2015/06/19/food-entrepreneur-workshop. Print out the registration form and complete with your payment information and mail or drop off to CCEUC, 232 Plaza Road, Kingston, NY 12401. For more information contact Janie Greenwald at (845) 340-3990, extension 326, or e-mail [email protected].