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Have a Great Food Product Idea? Ready to Grow Your Business?

Product Development Considerations: Beyond the Basics

If you have plans to become a successful food entrepreneur, Amanda Kinchla wants to be sure you understand the risks and rewards associated with food production.  Kinchla, an Assistant Extension Professor of Food Science at UMass Amherst,  recently taught a course (“Product Development Considerations – Beyond the Concept”) on food safety principles at two food processing incubator and business development centers, one in eastern Mass. (Dorchester) and the other out west (in Greenfield).  In the end, participants could not have missed two very big points: owning and operating a food-related business can be very rewarding — and even show a profit — but it is not for the faint of heart.

This course attracted packed houses of both seasoned and new business owners who arrived to better understand the food safety principles behind their processes. Some owners needed assistance with product development and ideas for future products.  Others had questions about how to create a new food product and how to plan for possible expansion at early stages in their business development. All were very concerned with understanding and abiding by regulations. Kinchla, an expert on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and product development, provided guidance on and solutions to whatever situations were thrown at her.

Biological, chemical and physical food hazards? Food preservation methods and pitfalls?  Quality control processing options? Allergens? Professor Kinchla left few food issues untouched. She emphasized human health hazards such as botulism (yes, it still happens), Salmonella, Listeria, E.coli, Staphylococcus, viruses and parasites — all organisms that must be understood by food operators. These problems are capable of causing foodborne illness and can shut a business down overnight.

Understanding common allergens and how to avoid cross-contamination is crucial. Eight foods cause 90% of allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.  As it happened, the owners of Herrell’s Ice Cream (based in nearby Northampton) were at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield and had recently implemented a color-coded system to better highlight food allergens. Their customers with allergies can easily make informed decisions about what flavors they can eat and which to avoid by looking at the menu board with a red dot for nuts, a blue dot for gluten and a green dot for eggs. The ice cream innovators reported that within one day of implementation, news of their coding system went viral on the Web and Herrell’s phone started ringing with calls from around the country. This real-life example of an easy problem-solving solution to food safety was well-received.

Kinchla said that her goal is to support local entrepreneurs who are working hard to build a more sustainable local food system. She planted a seed as she encouraged them to consider moving from a small scale kitchen operation to planning for a successful larger scale business in the early stages of their business.

Alex’s Ugly Sauce

Alex Bourgeois did just that.  He creates and sells a delicious popular hot sauce: Alex’s Ugly Sauce. His operation began in 2011 in Jamaica Plain’s Crop Circle Kitchen, a 3,000 square foot food incubator building for small new businesses. Like an increasing number of new food entrepreneurs, Alex sources his food locally. He chose Stillman's Farm in central Massachusetts to grow peppers and he purchases honey from Carlisle Honey, whose bees are allowed to flourish in secluded areas of Massachusetts away from commercial developments. As the demand for his product has ramped up, his need for more production space has increased. Alex is now a tenant in the new 36,000 sq. ft. Bornstein & Pearl Food Production Facility (aka the “Pearl”) in Dorchester, designed for those food businesses ready to grow and mature.  For relative newcomers like Alex, the biggest challenge is finding shared kitchens in Boston. As a tenant at the Pearl, he can now expand and focus on product development without being concerned about maintenance of a building or other issues that pull him away from production, marketing and sales.  Alex’s Ugly Sauce can be purchased at about 60 stores and farms near Boston.  alexsuglysauce.com

Meringue Bark

Margie Mikulskis has loved eating meringues since her childhood. However, she was confident she could make a tasty lower-fat, gluten-free version. For the past two years, banking on her solid entrepreneurial spirit, she has created a small business that has now outgrown her home kitchen.  Mikulskis’ goal was to add more product lines and to revamp both her packaging and marketing plan which led her to sign up for Amanda Kinchla’s class.  She gained real knowledge of food safety as a result. For example, pathogens, such as Listeria, can collect under the ridge of a stainless steel counter top if they are not carefully washed and sanitized correctly (which she had not known beforehand). Useful information! Although Mikulskis is ServSafeTM certified, she wants to learn as much as possible about all aspects of food safety. She now needs a larger oven for making meringues, which was her impetus to rent space from the Pearl in Dorchester. To order her products, click on her website at newwavedelights.com

Rosalind Freeman, Community Relations and Operations Manager for Crop Circle Kitchen, is pleased they were able to offer a workshop for food entrepreneurs that focused on product development. One goal of their newly expanded Dorchester facility is to help solve some of the issues of scaling up a food business and finding production space in the greater Boston area.  She explained that there is a high demand for shared kitchen spaces and small-scale co-packers in the greater Boston region.

Freeman commented that she hopes to offer another course based on the high interest she saw in this one. “The great thing about offering HACCP material is that it is compliments ServSafeTM regulations which are geared more towards restaurant workers. This is much more specific to meeting the needs of our tenants.  They can propel their business to the next level while delving deeper into product development and food safety issues.”   Freeman hopes these new local food entrepreneurs will also expand to include more local foods in the future.

One participant, Julie of Agraria Farm in Rehoboth Mass., commented, “The prospect of beginning to develop a business and plan for safe food handling is certainly daunting; we are grateful for everyone who is helping us navigate the process.  Your lecture was delivered with great skill and grace, and your depth of knowledge admirable."

For her part, Kinchla says, “It is gratifying to work with these boots-on-the-ground business owners. It was exciting to observe lots of innovative strategies to bring more local food to Massachusetts. Because many of these new entrepreneurs had not yet thought through of all the facets of their production involving with food science, I was happy to contribute scientifically-based information to help them succeed.” Kinchla is now exploring methods to build on this program and is considering offering webinars in the future.

Crop Circle Kitchen http://www.cropcirclekitchen.org/
Western Mass Food Processing Center http://www.fccdc.org/about-the-center
 

Professor Kinchla teaches 2 courses: Dorchester and Greenfield
Alex Ugly Sauce
Meringue Bark
Mixers used at Crop Circle Kitchen
Crop Circle Kitchen