Making It: Food Entrepreneurs Get Boost From U of I Tech Center
It’s 10am on a Tuesday morning and from the parking lot it smells like a Missouri-sized barbecue contest. But next to the large, nondescript industrial building a few blocks off the main drag in Caldwell, there are no trailers emblazoned with sunglass-wearing hogs, no trash-talking bearded men hefting spice-rubbed pork shoulder, no gleaming stainless steel smokers.
Inside, however, there is a bearded man, in a beard net, overseeing a small assembly line. Behind him stands a tower of empty boxes. And in front, the source of that unmistakable sweet, smoky scent: an enormous stainless steel cauldron bubbles with a deep, dark red sauce.
This is the 7,000-square-foot commercial processing kitchen of the University of Idaho Food Technology Center. Andy Brown of Ozark Ridge BBQ and Dipping Sauce, is cooking and bottling wife Charlotte Brown’s secret family recipe. They’ll produce close to 1,200 bottles of sauce today, start to finish, under the supervision of professional University of Idaho food scientists and aided by the center’s small crew of workers.
Next week, Bob and Cari Wagner of Wagner Idaho Foods will take over the kitchen, preparing and bottling any one of their six addictive Idaho mustard flavors to sell at over 20 Treasure Valley locations, in person at the Saturday Nampa Farmers Market and online at WagnerIdahoFoods.com.
Between 40 and 60 producers each year utilize the center. They fire up industrial-size food processors and mixers, steam kettles, a bottle filling machine, several ovens, an automatic labeler and more, meeting state and federal safety standards and generating a variety of conventional or certified organic dried, acidified, cold-packed or baked goods for retail sale.
Just a few of the other local food entrepreneurs that use the center: Backcountry Bar (nutrition bars), Dilly’s (pickled asparagus), Yoshio’s (teriyaki sauce), ZZ Foods (Idaho hummus), Homemade by Dorothy (dry mixes, fruit products, gift packs) and Boise Fry Company (dipping sauces).
Entrepreneurs first complete a one-day University of Idaho class called Developing Your Food Product Idea: A Blueprint for Pre-Venture and Startup Food Companies. Twice a year, participants learn about the risks and rewards of starting a specialty food business and explore the potential viability of their own real or imagined products.
For those who emerge ready to move forward, the center director Josh Bevan and kitchen supervisor Cini Baumhoff assist with product development, testing, ingredient and nutritional labels, packaging, design and marketing. They even work with clients on how to train employees and conduct food demonstrations at trade shows and festivals.
The center is able to provide these services at a bargain to entrepreneurs through a unique funding model. Bevan and Baumhoff’s duties include the operation of an adjacent pilot plant where they contract and perform research and development, Good Laboratory Practice studies, food quality and safety analysis for large food manufacturers and agrichemical companies. This work keeps costs low for the center and the clients who use it. As a result, local food products can be produced, marketed and enjoyed affordably and with limited financial risk.
And what goes better with great local food than great local wines? In addition to the Food Technology Center, the University of Idaho Caldwell Research and Extension Center in Caldwell is also home to the Agribusiness Incubator, directed by James Toomey. The incubator houses several families of artisan winemakers who rent office space, store and share large pieces of winemaking equipment and have access to temperature-controlled storage to make and warehouse a variety of local red and white wines.
Tenants also have plans to start offering viticulture consultation, winemaking classes and a wine lab for testing the alcohol, pH and sugar content of finished product through the facility as well.
While the faculty and staff at the Food Technology Center and Agribusiness Incubator devote themselves to their clients, they hope to see them move on, eventually.
“Graduation is our goal,” says Cini Baumhoff. She hopes that producers will become so successful that they outgrow the center, either building their own processing facility or joining a co-packing operation.
Think you might have the greatest cookie recipe, secret hot sauce or spice rub that the world has yet to taste? You might have a future at the University of Idaho Food Technology Center. Baumhoff is committed to helping you succeed, but she is realistic, too.
“Your product might be the best, but if all the steps aren’t there—like marketing, packaging, price point, etc.—you won’t succeed.”
But with the kind of expert help you’ll find at the center, you just might.