Small Foodmakers Ponder Chances for a Big Commercial Kitchen
Working in her home kitchen in Norwich, Vt., on April 1, 2010, Lisa Johnson prepares a batch of Yummy Yammy Tex-Mex dip for delivery. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Lisa Johnson spoons Yummy Yammy Tex-Mex into containers in Norwich, Vt., on April 1, 2010. She makes Yummy Yammy products three times a week to sell at area stores. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Viktor Wikowski spoons a potato and cheese mixture onto perogi dough at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Viktor Wikowski crimps a pierogi closed at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
When Lisa Johnson started Yummy Yammy, a food business dedicated to encouraging the consumption of sweet potatoes, it didn’t take long for her to outgrow the kitchen in her Norwich home.
She made the first sale of her yam-based salsas in October 2009, and less than two years later needed to expand production. That led to a conundrum that a lot of Upper Valley food producers face. There isn’t much commercial kitchen space in the area that’s available to businesses ready to expand.
Johnson explored her options and found that the best place to expand was the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, Vt. That’s an hour and a quarter from Norwich when the weather is good, Johnson said.
Despite the presence of a host of food businesses, the Upper Valley food economy isn’t quite large or cohesive enough to support a common commercial kitchen that can accommodate a range of operations, according to food makers and business consultants. That leaves businesses that want to grow struggling to make an intermediate step from a home kitchen to a larger kitchen before contracting with a food production company.
For an individual business it can be too great an expense to buy all the gear needed to equip a larger kitchen. “It just takes so much business to pay for your equipment,” Johnson said.
Over the years there has been talk of developing a central commercial kitchen in the Upper Valley, but there hasn’t been much more than talk.
A feasibility study was done in the mid-1990s, said Jill Michaels, who was then executive director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corp. “There was real interest,” Michaels said. A consultant was hired to search for a location, but the effort “just kind of petered out,” she said.
Part of the reason has to do with cost. Developing a commercial kitchen that could host cooks making everything from salsa to granola to ice cream would be expensive to build and supply, Johnson said.
“It’s very expensive to serve businesses that are just on the way up,” Michaels said.
Each food business has very specialized needs, she noted. If a kitchen is trying to accommodate four businesses, each of the four might need different equipment.
Other such food incubators were started with substantial grant funding. The Center for Food Science at the University of Vermont received a $250,000 federal grant in 1996 to get off the ground, and the Vermont Food Venture Center, which opened a little over two years ago, benefitted from a $450,000 federal grant secured by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship, which is run jointly by UVM and Cornell University, has operated with funding from the USDA and the state of New York.
The Upper Valley is too prosperous to compete well for federal grants, Michaels said.
What’s more, it isn’t clear that there’s enough of a community to justify developing a food business incubator.
“I haven’t really felt like there was a critical mass, or enough people to do anything,” Johnson said.
Joan Goldstein, current executive director at Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., the Hartford-based state economic development agency that serves 30 towns in east central Vermont, said she doesn’t see sufficient demand.
“Is there a need? Possibly,” Goldstein said. “I’m not convinced yet.”
Even if there were federal funds available for such a project, the feds would want to know who the anchor tenant would be, Goldstein said.
“I also think there are solutions out there,” she added.
For example, a pair of small co-packing companies, Freedom Foods in Randolph and C&K Foods LLC in North Springfield, Vt., are available to help small food producers make and package their products, even in relatively small quantities.
But it isn’t clear whether those options work for everyone, and they’re still a bit far afield for a food producer in Hanover, Norwich or White River Junction.
Viktor Witkowski started a business making and selling pierogi, a traditional Polish dumpling, last fall and has already outgrown the small kitchen in his Norwich home. He has been working with consultants at Goldstein’s agency to find a suitable space, but hasn’t found a workable option. A couple of leads never called him back, and he decided Freedom Foods wouldn’t work out. He contacted the food venture center in Hardwick, but it doesn’t have a license to handle the dairy products he uses in two of his three pierogi styles.
“Everything became so complicated and the resources just are not in place,” he said.
Lisa Johnson’s Yummy Yammy products are now made in Massachusetts, but she is less invested in the “made in Vermont” label than Witkowski is. Her aim is a food revolution that brings “superfoods” like the sweet potato to more American tables, and her products are now in stores from the upper Midwest to Florida.
Witkowski wants a local business that can satisfy local demand, and perhaps reach farther across Vermont and New Hampshire. “The only option I have is to set up my own facility,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do now.” He said he expects it will cost him $50,000 to $60,000, but that demand for his products is sufficient to cover that expense.
He said he’s not sure a common facility might not get off the ground.
“I think the only way to do something like that would be to get several people together who have similar ideas,” he said. When and if that happens is anyone’s guess.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.