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New AgCenter food incubator sparks interest, offers hope

News Release Distributed 02/15/13

BATON ROUGE, La. – Seventy people filled the meeting room to capacity the day before Mardi Gras (Feb. 11) to find out about the new LSU AgCenter Food Incubator and how it can help them start or expand their food businesses.

One woman said she wants to start a candy-making business. Another woman wants to move her bakery out of her home. A man in the audience said he wants to have a food truck business.

“I thought only 20 people would show up,” said Gaye Sandoz, incubator coordinator, of the first conference to attract clients. “I knew there was interest, but I didn’t know there was that much interest.”

The food incubator was established in December 2012 when Sandoz was hired. Already she has 65 clients who want help, which is all she will be able to handle until May, when she will host another introductory meeting.

“I plan to do these meetings quarterly,” Sandoz said.

During the two-hour session, Sandoz cautioned the audience that a food business demands a lot of hours, is physically exhausting and requires upfront costs and paperwork.

“But it can be a lot of fun and rewarding,” she said.

One of the graduates of the food business incubator in Norco, La., Edible Enterprises, where Sandoz worked before coming to the AgCenter, told the group about her success with dipping sauces.

Lois Comeaux, of Cut Off, La., spent about a year and a half at the food incubator and now distributes her product, Wow Wee Dipping Sauce, at 600 stores in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

“They helped me step by step,” Comeaux said of the business incubator. “I came there with a product. And now that product is on store shelves in three states.”

She and her husband, Charlie Comeaux, have just purchased a building in Cut Off to produce their sauces, and they have three employees. She still maintains contact with Sandoz because “I always have questions,” she said.

Sandoz went through the steps of how to work with the incubator and start a food business.

“Some people start with just an idea. They make really good candy, and they think they might be able to sell it.

“Some people are already doing a business out of their home. But to expand, they have to produce the food at a commercial kitchen, and they need help to scale up their recipes,” Sandoz said.

Another group of clients are the restaurants that want to sell their brand-name products – sauces, dressings, oils – in stores.

“They can sell these products at their restaurant. But to get them in grocery stores, they have to produce them off premises at a commercial kitchen,” Sandoz said.

One such new client is Mansurs on the Boulevard, a Baton Rouge restaurant. Brandon McDonald, one of the restaurant’s four partners, attended the meeting and said they are considering expanding the market for their soups, salad dressings and seasonings.

Based on her work at the Norco incubator, Sandoz said a typical stay at a food incubator is 18 months to two years. Clients will pay $300 initially and then $20 per hour to use the facilities, which will be open seven days a week. For an additional cost, they will have access to storage, including cold storage.

Clients must take classes, for a fee, to learn about food safety and processing. They also must buy permits and insurance to conduct their food business.

Clients will get assistance from the Louisiana Business and Technology Center to develop their business plans. Faculty and students from the LSU AgCenter Department of Food Science will help clients with their processing methods, ingredients and additives and assure food safety.

Sandoz will help with everything from label development to advertising and will help find whatever unique resources are needed to market each product.

Louisiana has three food incubators – in Norco, which is near New Orleans, in Alexandria, and at the AgCenter.

“The AgCenter’s food incubator is for people in the greater Baton Rouge area and will be a resource and processing center for new and existing businesses for the state of Louisiana,” Sandoz said, adding that some Norco clients are moving to the AgCenter because it’s more convenient.

The AgCenter is in the process of renovating space in Ingram Hall, the former poultry science building, which should be ready to use by summer.

“We’ll have about 5,000 square feet for our actual processing area. But we’ll grow space to keep up with our clients,” Sandoz said, adding that there is also a pilot plant in the facility for testing, formulation and special projects.

“We have wanted to get our products out for a long time, and now there is true hope,” wrote Carolyn Cappo, of Baton Rouge, in an email to Sandoz following the conference. She and her husband, Rick, produce meat rubs and sauces.

Linda Foster Benedict

Last Updated: 2/15/2013 2:02:48 PM

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