Linda Benedict | 2/28/2014 2:58:39 AM
The LSU AgCenter Food Incubator is a one-stop resource center for people looking to break into the food business and put sellable, high-quality products on store shelves. The incubator puts within reach of entrepreneurs the tools to test, produce, package and market foods.
While many people have great food ideas, few have a background in food safety and production. The incubator can turn ideas into real products by providing assistance every step of the way, from giving tenants access to a commercial kitchen to lab formulations for safety and nutrition.
Gaye Sandoz, incubator director, said the initiative launched in early 2013 with the idea of empowering food entrepreneurs to more efficiently make and market their products, which often have the same potential as national brand-name products. Small, local producers are at the heart of Louisiana's vibrant food culture, so it is important to support their endeavors with technical and educational resources.
"There's no place like Louisiana. We are a food state by nature," Sandoz said. "We're a food culture. Many of our people, that's what they do best – they cook. So the interest in the food business is growing, especially with the local food movement."
The incubator officially opened in July 2013 and is located in Ingram Hall on the Baton Rouge campus. The incubator's kitchen, which is capable of making one ton of product in one day, is outfitted with appliances such as ovens, kettles and slicers as well as packaging tools. A shipping and receiving area is also available for tenant use.
Renovations in the works will accommodate larger kettles and an automated bottling and labeling system.
Tenants also benefit from having expert advice. Sandoz assists with marketing such as connecting tenants with store buyers, food events and media, while food scientist Luis Espinoza conducts safety tests and helps formulate cost-effective variants of recipes. Tenants are involved in every step, allowing them to learn hands-on and discover the science behind getting their product ready for store shelves.
LSU students from different majors work at the incubator as well, giving them practical experience dealing with entrepreneurs and working in food production.
There are 15 tenants working in the incubator now and 15 more on a waiting list. Prospective tenants must complete an application and give a presentation on their product. Those who make the cut must develop a business plan. After that, a tenant lease is signed and work in the incubator can begin.
Whole Foods recently accepted six tenants' products. One of them is Whoo Doo Creole BBQ Sauce, created by Demietriek Scott, known as "Chef Scott." With Jamaican- and Creole-inspired flavors, Scott said he tries to infuse as much New Orleans as possible in his sauces.
After working in restaurants for 20 years, Scott started making his own barbecue sauce about a year ago. He said it is exciting to share New Orleans through food, so he wants to "move this product around the world." The incubator is helping him do that in terms of capacity — he made eight cases on his first day at the incubator — and complying with regulations.
The incubator has also attracted clients from beyond Louisiana's borders. Kelly Woo, a restaurant owner from Atlanta, has been making her Southern Art line of sauces at the incubator since September 2013. She visits Baton Rouge every two weeks to cook and bottle her hot sauce, salad dressing and two flavors of Korean barbecue sauce.
There are many brand-name sauce companies, Woo said, but Southern Art stands out because its products are all-natural and versatile. Her hot sauce has lots of flavor, not just spice, she said.
Woo said she had her hot sauce recipe for 30 years but did not know how to bottle and sell it before joining the incubator. Today, she sells it and her other products in 12 stores in Baton Rouge.
"As we work with them, we also learn from them so that it's like a better understanding — why this is so important for shelf life, why we have to do studies, how to put it together," Woo said. "Even a good recipe cannot always be good in bottle form."
The incubator also attracts people from a variety of backgrounds. Mario Lozanov used to work as an organic chemist, but now he makes his City Gelato at the incubator and sells it at three locations in Baton Rouge. The incubator is helping him obtain a wholesale permit, create labels and do stability studies.
Lozanov makes about 25 flavors of gelato, including strawberry, chocolate, pistachio and cinnamon streusel cake.
"I used to be in research and development — that was molecules from scratch," Lozanov said. "Now I'm making gelato from scratch, which is not as difficult as serious chemistry, but has a creative element."
Helping tenants capture that creativity and apply it to make delicious foods is the essence of what the Food Incubator does. Through education and research — the core of the LSU AgCenter — the incubator offers invaluable expertise on food safety regulations, packaging, marketing and more.
— The Food Incubator is the only resource of its kind in the South. Incubator tenants have access to experts who help them with everything from business plans and safety tests to packaging and marketing.
— Tenants know their products best, so the Food Incubator empowers local food entrepreneurs to market their own products to retailers.
— The incubator's staff encourages tenants to learn about the science behind getting a product ready for store shelves. Expanding knowledge of their own products assists marketing efforts.
— LSU students gain practical knowledge of the food industry by participating in various aspects of the process of translating tenants' ideas into real, high-quality products.