AgCenter food incubator spurs innovation

(07/18/16) BATON ROUGE, La. – When the idea for the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator was first hatched in 2012, Louisiana had no facility where people who wanted to pursue the daunting journey of starting a food business could go for expert advice and production equipment.

In the past three years, the Food Incubator has filled that void, serving as a “one stop shop” for people looking to turn their recipes into profitable, successful businesses.

The incubator officially launched in July 2013 with 10 tenants and now offers services to 35 tenants – with more on a waiting list – who make 67 products in the incubator facilities.

The incubator has become a vital resource for Louisiana food entrepreneurs who otherwise would have to go out of state to find technical expertise and kitchen facilities to make their products, said Gaye Sandoz, director of the incubator. It has helped people turn old family recipes and creative new ideas alike into viable businesses that have found receptive audiences around Louisiana.

“Buying local is trendy now,” Sandoz said. “The customers feel it’s healthier and safer because they know the source, and they want to support the community.”

The impressive roster of products made by incubator tenants includes everything from salad dressings and barbecue sauces to candies and gelato. Many of the products are sold at local farmers markets and stores across Louisiana and the South. Some tenants have found an even larger audience through online orders that are shipped around the country.

Success stories are abundant at the incubator, Sandoz said, noting that the initiative has helped create 30 full-time and 50 part-time jobs.

There’s Richard Hanley, one of the incubator’s first tenants whose salad dressings have made it onto store shelves in multiple states. There’s Alvin Ray, who today has a full-time job making and selling his popular sweet and spicy Bayou Best pickles – something he once did just for friends and family after coming home from his old job as a maintenance man. And there’s Mario Lozanov, a former organic chemist who now oversees a small empire of carts around Baton Rouge that sell his City Gelato, which is also available in several supermarkets.

Four tenants, including Hanley and Ray, have graduated to co-packers, which are facilities that entrepreneurs contract with to manufacture products on their behalf. Being accepted by a co-packer allows tenants to ramp up production and fulfill the ever-growing demand for their products.

The Louisiana State University Louisiana Business and Technology Center Business Incubator – which helps entrepreneurs, including LSU students, start small businesses – was instrumental in getting the Food Incubator off the ground in 2013, said Sandoz, whom the AgCenter hired away from a food business incubator in Norco, Louisiana.

In the incubator’s first year, its handful of inaugural tenants made 3.5 tons of products using a couple of small kettles, a bottler and a few other pieces of equipment in a renovated space in Clyde Ingram Hall on the LSU campus. In 2014, production jumped to 21 tons, then more than doubled to 44 tons in 2015.

Since opening, the incubator has expanded, adding more and larger equipment to accommodate the growing list of tenants and to help them satisfy increasing demand for their products. Incubator tenants also can take advantage of kitchen facilities in the new AgCenter Animal and Food Sciences Laboratories Building, which opened in August 2014.

“I know we wouldn’t be where we are today without the facilities and the personnel with the incubator,” said Abigail Ricks, who makes Old Soul Pickles at the incubator.

“To take something from a homemade product and bring it to a bigger scale is something that if you don’t have any experience and you’re a home cook, you might not have any idea where to start,” Ricks added. “But by using the food scientists and Gaye Sandoz, who is a wealth of knowledge, we’ve been able to maintain the quality of our product and even improve it.”

The incubator staff includes four food scientists – Luis Espinoza, Marvin Moncada, Gabriela Crespo and Ashley Gutierrez – who help tenants adjust their recipes so they’re shelf stable and safe. They also help both tenants and other food entrepreneurs reformulate recipes to create improved or entirely new products, like those that use only natural products.

In the process, the tenants often learn more about the food industry and their own products, Sandoz said. They learn about the functions of certain ingredients and work with the scientists to find ways to cut production time and be more efficient.

It’s important for tenants to know their products well so they can successfully market them, Sandoz said. She encourages tenants to do in-store demonstrations and sell their products at farmers markets where they can interact with customers and learn more about their preferences. Technologies like social media and email newsletters can help them keep in touch with customers to develop a loyal fan base.

“If you can’t market, you shouldn’t start a food business,” Sandoz said. She often reminds tenants that they are most qualified to tell the story of their product – a strength they should leverage when talking to customers.

The incubator’s four student workers and one graduate assistant also are available to help tenants throughout the production and marketing processes, which offer valuable real-world experience in many aspects of the food industry.

Trey Bacon, who makes Tres Bien Que barbecue sauce with his mother, said incubator equipment like heated kettles and a bottler have allowed him to make more sauce faster so he can meet growing demand for the product. The incubator staff has also helped him navigate health regulations and make sure his barbecue sauce is safe – tasks that can be difficult for newcomers to the industry but are necessary for retail sales.

“Our store presence alone exploded once we were able to say we were made in the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator,” Bacon said. Before coming to the incubator, his sauce was sold in just a couple of stores. Now, it’s available in 25 stores, he said.

Linda McAdams, of Truly Southern Pretzel Crunch, said the incubator has helped her family’s product reach the shelves of about 80 stores in south Louisiana and a few other states in just a year and a half. She said that kind of success wouldn’t be possible without the guidance she’s received from Sandoz, the food scientists and other tenants.

“It’s an unbelievable experience to have this right in our own backyard, and I think that so many other cities around the country would benefit from this,” McAdams said. “I know not everybody knows about it, and we take the opportunity to let people know how fantastic a program it is and the amazing results we get. We cannot thank the staff enough because they always go above and beyond for us.”

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Lili Courtney, center, smiles while working with her son, Lloyd Courtney, left, to package bottles of her Delightful Palate salad dressing at LSU AgCenter Food Incubator facilities in Ingram Hall on July 5, 2016. Luz Lopez is seen putting finishing touches on bottles at right. Photo by Olivia McClure

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Matthew Broha uses a kettle to make Ruth’s Recipes hummus in LSU AgCenter Food Incubator facilities in Ingram Hall on July 5, 2016. Broha’s mother, Kathy Broha, started Ruth’s Recipes and is one of the original tenants of the incubator. Photo by Olivia McClure

7/19/2016 7:44:24 PM
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