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Food incubator: kitchen hobbies go to groceries

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POSTED February 8, 2013 8:56 p.m.

 

NORCO, La. (AP) — The smell of herbs and spices filled the large industrial kitchen space as Bonnie Barberot stirred ingredients in a steaming metal cauldron. She was at the Edible Enterprises kitchen early on a Monday to prepare a fresh batch of sweet and spicy pickles, one of five pickle products Barberot produces under the Bushwood Farms name.

Like many of the tenants who use the same industrial kitchen at the Norco-based incubator for food businesses, Bushwood Farms started as a hobby. The Cajun-inspired products Barberot creates, including Cajun Hot Mirlitons and Cajun Sweet Beets, have made their way from farmers markets and food shows to local grocery stores over the past year. It's been a long transition, and patience has at times been hard to find, she said.

For entrepreneurs trying to establish themselves in the food world, marketing and self-promotion is at times even more important than the work that goes on in the kitchen.

New food businesses face a lot of competition, said Alan Allgood, director of Edible Enterprises. Because they are not able to produce high volume, they have to initially target boutique grocery stores and keep their prices up, he said.

"It's not just about the work that goes on in the kitchen," Allgood said. "It can be a quality product, but consumers like what they know. Business owners have to constantly be promoting themselves and their product to gain consumers' trust."

Edible Enterprises launched in June 2009 and has a roster of 19 tenants from nine parishes producing a variety of food products that include cupcakes, pasta and barbecue sauce. The incubator was a creation of St. Charles Parish Government, the Norco Community Economic Development Foundation and the River Parishes Community Development Corp. Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana manages the program as a nonprofit entity.

For $20 an hour, tenants can rent kitchen space and use thousands of dollars worth of restaurant-quality kitchen equipment. The space also provides resources to guide new businesses through proper permitting, label approval and sales codes to get their product out of the test kitchen and onto the grocers' shelves.

The LSU AgCenter is developing a food business incubator in Baton Rouge, which will provide similar services for startup companies in the food industry.

Upon completing the incubator program, fledgling businesses are encouraged to leave the kitchen and participate in food shows, festivals and sampling events at grocery stores, Allgood said.

Rosario D'Amico, owner of Sicily's Finest Gourmet Foods and a tenant at the incubator, connected with Breaux Mart owners in June 2010 at a festival in Kenner.

"My sauces sell at a higher price point than many of the more well-known competitors," D'Amico said. "You have to give customers a reason to want to spend extra on an item they're not familiar with."

His business isn't profitable yet, but D'Amico said he's getting there. He's looking for a co-packer who would help him produce, bottle and distribute the sauce. If he could produce more sauce and sell it at larger stores, he said it would help him reduce its price.

Barberot's road from hobby to business took about three years. She started by selling her products at a local farmers' market in Covington. Word of mouth helped sales and she was soon inspired to transition her work into a business.

Barberot, who owns a farm on the North Shore, did most of the work setting up her business before renting out kitchen space at Edible Enterprises. She earned her Louisiana Product certification from the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which promotes such products in trade shows and festivals.

Her products and their recipes went through the LSU AgCenter's Department of Food Science to test their shelf life and create labels. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture had to approve those labels and the permits needed for her to expand sales into grocery stores.

Bushwood Farms products can be found at Langenstein's, Dorignac's and three Rouses locations. Sales have been better at the smaller grocery stores, Barberot said.

"Mine are one of many pickle products on those shelves," she said. "At the small stores, the owners are more open to giving me more shelf space around the store."

At Dorignac's, Bushwood Farms are stocked next to the Bloody Mary mix as well as two other locations in the store.

"Before doing this, I never really thought about how important shelf placement is for a food product," Barberot said. "It helps me stand out among the crowd."

 

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