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Local foods fervor fuels Ohio's food product innovation
Toledo-based Center for Innovative Food Technology launches food entrepreneurs
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter
Vivian Goodman
 
Summit Croissants Multi-Grain Pancake/Waffle Mix by Sally Ohle of Akron, and Valens Kombucha Sparkling Probiotic Drink by Debbie Sablack of Twinsburg, won the Center for Innovative Food Technology’s 2014 Northeast Ohio Food Contest. That's Debbie on the left and Sally on the right.
Courtesy of Courtesy of CIFT
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In The Region:

It’s more than a trend, this hankering for foods grown close to home. 

The USDA announced last week, National Farmers’ Market Week, that local food is now a $7 billion per year market. 

Our state is positioned to grab a nice piece of the pie thanks to an industry group that helps Ohio food entrepreneurs. For today's Quick Bite, WKSU's Vivian Goodman enters the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen.

Demand for local foods helps entrepreneurs

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Tony Brubaker of Cygnet had a dream. 

The former military man and recently ordained minister wanted to make a great barbecue sauce.

“I’m a culinary arts graduate, former chef, so I thought, ‘Let me make my own.’”    

He calls it Reverend T.’s Cargo Sauce, a finishing sauce for hardwood-smoked barbecue.

“Me personally, I like something that’s bold, spicy, without the burn.”   

With notes of garlic, coffee, cumin and Worcestershire, he thinks it has multiple applications. Hence the name. “Cargo Sauce gives the implication that you can take it everywhere.”    

But Reverend T.’s dream was going nowhere.

“I never had the money to do a full-out production, and I didn’t have the experience for it either. So I started dreaming on paper and all of a sudden I came to the point, 'Well, I’m going to need to produce somewhere, so let me check.'”    

NOCK: the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen
That’s when he found CIFT, the Center for Innovative Food Technology and FDA-certified NOCK, the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen it manages. 

CIFT Vice President Rebecca Singer says the private non-profit’s mission is research and economic development. 

Ohio has 1,100 food companies.

“So anything that we can do to help the companies that are here, encourage additional production capacity or help them to expand, and bring new resources to the table for a stronger food system, that’s what we aim to achieve.”  

Working with food makers large and small
Based in Toledo, CIFT’s been working since 1995 with long-standing Ohio manufacturers like Kroger, Smuckers and Sandridge Farms. Members of the consortium pay annual fees for research and networking opportunities, focus groups on new products, and evaluations of new technologies. 

CIFT recently helped Medina-based Sandridge develop a new high-pressure processing system.

“It’s an innovative technique being used in the food industry that actually extends shelf life of products and really minimizes the preservatives that are needed.”  Sandridge has seen increased sales as a result. 

But CIFT also provides help to smaller companies, especially since opening its cooperative kitchen 10 years ago. 

A warm welcome leads to a hot sauce
Reverend T. says when he called about using the kitchen to develop his sauce, they were welcoming. “Kind enough to invite me in, give me a tour, and invite me to submit my sauce for the 2013 product development contest."
And he won it. 

Vice President Rebecca Singer says CIFT‘s 10 food product development contests in the last five years have helped raise the agency’s  profile. 

“The contest was our kind of creative approach to generate some enthusiasm and excitement around food in general and letting people know that if they do have a viable product idea and they really want to make a business out of it there’s resources that are available to help them.”  

Consumer demand for local foods fuels entrepreneurship
More are coming forward, she says, because of the local foods movement.  “Consumers inquiring more about where the products that they’re purchasing are coming from is really helping many of these companies get off to the right start.”   

Producers like Tony Brubaker help the local farm economy, too. “The tomato product that I use in my sauce is all sourced out of Northwest Ohio and southern Michigan. So I’m trying to help the local businesses just as local businesses have helped me.”   

His prize for winning the contest:  free technical assistance and consultation. “Oh, there’s so many things especially when it comes to food scientists, your nutritional analysis. Things that without the proper know-how and knowledge you would have no clue.”  

Essential technical help and consultation
Brubaker gets help with labelling, shelf-stability testing, market research, and more. 

His big moment came in the spring when he started large-scale production. “All of my ingredients came together and tasted exactly the way I wanted it. I initially produced 15 cases which sold out in the matter of a week. It’s taken off better than I could have ever planned.”   

He continues working at NOCK, paying only $20 an hour to use the kitchen. “It’s extraordinarily generous. They’re allowing us to use this multi-faceted facility.”   

Salsa success
Of the small businesses making products with CIFT’s help the biggest success story is Willie’s Salsa. The first batch came out of the NOCK kitchen 5 years ago, quickly spread to grocery stores all over Northwest Ohio, and is now being sold in 25 states including larger retailers. 

CIFT’s Rebecca Singer says many of the 40 companies now working out of the NOCK kitchen make similar products. “We do a tremendous amount with barbecue sauces, salsas, salad dressings, those types of items where we have a small bottling line that enables them to make a fair amount of product in a shorter time frame than what they could do elsewhere.”   

An enterprise with multiple benefits
Bittersweet Farms couldn’t make its salsa and pesto sauce without CIFT’s help. 

Beth Myer’s part of a small crew working in the NOCK kitchen. “We’re going to be canning the tomato chutney today, and I usually run the canning machine. I help run the hopper of the canning machine." She likes the work. "Do you like it? Yes, I do because it’s mechanical.”   

Doreen Russell brings in the workers and the ingredients from the farm in Whitehouse. “It’s a facility for adults with autism and our products help provide jobs for our individuals and helps bring in money to help support the programs.”   

Jamie Cummins has high-functioning Asperger’s and hopes her work at NOCK’s preparing her to someday leave the farm. “I mean I do really like Bittersweet Farms but I’m hoping for a job in the community someday.”    

Hopes and dreams come true
Meanwhile Tony Brubaker’s getting what he hoped for. 

Reverend T.’s Cargo Sauce is now being sold at Walt Churchill grocery stores in Maumee, Perrysburg, and Brubaker’s hometown of Cygnet. You can also get it at Brinkman’s Country Corner in Findlay, and Brubaker’s in talks with a major supermarket. 

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week it’s back to school when we ride the Fork in the Road, Kent State’s new campus food truck. 

(Click image for larger view.)

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