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University of Maine's "Recipe to Market" program offers cross-disciplinary training to new food entrepreneurs

Posted: August 18, 2014

While a passion for food might drive people to launch a food-related business, passion alone isn’t enough to guarantee their success. Business know-how, access to the right equipment, and a reservoir of knowledge about licensing, regulations, and food safety are essential to the success of new food entrepreneurs. In Maine, a multi-disciplinary program helps people develop all the skills they need to get a new food business off the ground.
During the May “What Works” conference, Louis Bassano presented “From Recipe to Market: Helping Specialty Food Entrepreneurs Add Value to Their Agricultural Products.” We caught up with Bassano and his University of Maine colleagues to learn and share more about their program. Watch for more conference highlights in future issues of our newsletter.

"My experience has been that many new entrepreneurs are really passionate about the food side of the equation, but they’re not as knowledgeable and skilled in the business side and food science side," said Jim McConnon, an Extension Business and Economics Specialist and Professor of Economics at the University of Maine. McConnon and Beth Calder, Extension Food Science Specialist and Associate Professor of Food Science, receive regular inquiries from residents across the state wanting to know about various aspects of developing a value-added food business. At the same time, county Extension offices receive frequent calls from residents asking, "How do I start a food business in Maine?"

Responding to a growing need

To address this question, McConnon and Calder, together with their Extension colleagues, piloted a program called "Recipe to Market" in 2007. Their goal was to provide budding food entrepreneurs with the business skills and food science knowledge needed to develop a viable specialty food business. The pilot was met with such enthusiasm that the series has since been offered at two different Maine locations each year, and to date has served more than 180 Maine residents, whose product ideas range from lobster snacks to food spices to pet treats that incorporate seaweed. This widespread interest doesn’t appear to be waning, either.

"There’s no question that interest in specialty food and value-added food businesses is on the rise, whether sparked by a general interest in local foods or by a response to the 2007 recession when Maine lost a significant number of jobs," said McConnon. This rising interest translates to real growth, according to county-level data from the U.S. Census. From 2010 to 2012, the nation as a whole saw a five percent increase in the number of food and beverage manufacturing businesses. But Maine’s rate of growth during this same period was more than two times the US rate, with a 13 percent increase in the number of these businesses.*

These data lend support to Louis Bassano’s on-the-ground experience as a Regional Small Business Extension Educator. He conducts individual business counseling each month in various Maine locations, and sees a number of clients who want to start a specialty food business. Bassano is just one source of referrals to the Recipe to Market program, which he also helps teach. Other organizations, such as Maine’s Small Business Development Centers, refer their clients to the program as well.

"I think a lot of organizations see us as a primary resource for people who want to start specialty food businesses," said Bassano. "I think we’re about the only organization in Maine that is able to do this, in part because of our connection to the University and all the resources we can offer."

For example, Calder and her Food Science colleagues Jason Bolton and Kathy Dentici offer process and product review testing on shelf-stable canned foods to determine the food safety of these products. "We receive about 500 food samples for testing each year from Maine and New Hampshire, and we support small businesses from other states as well," said Calder. The University also has access to databases to help with market research, and its Foster Center for Student Innovation offers evidence-based business planning resources.

Multidisciplinary approach makes a meaningful difference

University resources like these, coupled with the county-based Extension network, help to make the program "meaningfully different," said McConnon. "It’s interdisciplinary, combining food science and food safety with economics and business."

John Rebar, Executive Director of Cooperative Extension, agrees. "We bring a toolbox of expertise that helps meet the needs of our customers, as opposed to a single-line approach where we teach only small business entrepreneurial skills," he said. "It’s got to be more than that because they’re trying to create a food-based business." Working with state-level regulatory agencies or learning how to scale a recipe up and transition from a kitchen to a factory are just some of the things food entrepreneurs need to prepare for.  

The interdisciplinary nature of the program is reflected in the structure of the series, which is broken into four three-hour workshops:

  • Are You an Entrepreneur? explores product development and the entrepreneurial lifestyle and helps participants identify the strengths and weaknesses they bring to their business. Participants may use the Small Business Administration’s Readiness Assessment Tool or other online self-tests. However, this first session is often tailored to suit the unique needs of the group, depending on where individuals are in the process of establishing a business.
  • Business Realities offers participants the opportunity to explore the processes of developing a business plan, conducting market research, setting prices for their products, and marketing.
  • Developing Your Product and Process focuses on food safety, labeling, processing, and packaging, and provides information about University resources available to help entrepreneurs in these areas. An inspector from Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry visits to talk about licensing and regulations.
  • The fourth workshop is a Q&A session with an expert resource panel, which features an insurance agent, a banker, an attorney, and a local food entrepreneur. Participants are encouraged to bring as many questions as they can think of for these experts.

The group-based portion of the series wraps up with an optional tour of the University of Maine’s Dr. Matthew Highlands Pilot Plant, which familiarizes participants with the specialty-food processing equipment and services that the facility offers.

Finally, participants are offered an individual business consultation with McConnon, Calder, and Bassano or other Extension faculty, during which they can ask questions that they might not want to ask during the group sessions. Most take advantage of this opportunity.

Evaluate, Refine, Repeat.

Having offered Recipe to Market for seven years, the team has taken many opportunities to evaluate and refine the program for greater impact. For example, they have incorporated some pre-screening questions in their registration process to make sure participants are at a stage where they’ll get the most out of the course. By asking participants to describe their product and the stage their business is in, the team can identify whether an applicant might be better served by some of the other Extension programs the University offers.

The course also has evolved to include more information on pricing food products. (In fact, in one series the demand for pricing information was so strong that the team offered a separate three-hour pricing workshop outside of the Recipe to Market program.) As online marketing grows in popularity, the team has folded e-commerce information into the curriculum. And, the resource-packed notebook that each participant receives is continually being updated.

Impacts sustain the program

As part of their long-term evaluations, the team has gained valuable insights into their program’s impacts. "People who attend this program definitely become more knowledgeable and develop skills around value-added businesses," said McConnon. "We also know that they’ve taken that knowledge and have implemented it in a variety of ways, from making more effective business decisions to writing business plans to deciding not to venture out and start a specialty food business. To us that’s a viable outcome, as well."

These impacts have attracted the attention of other Maine partners, some of whom have provided sponsorships to enable more people to participate in the program. And, as more people participate and use what they learn to grow their businesses, their relationship with the University may grow, too.

"Participants often become continuing customers," said Rebar. "They may get their products tested with our food process authority lab, or they’ll engage us in some trouble-shooting, or they’ll have ongoing business questions and will meet with our business faculty to better understand how they can achieve greater success."

More information about the Recipe to Market program and other resources that the University of Maine offers to small food businesses is available here.  

by Kristen Devlin

 * According to County Business Patterns published by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Maine food and beverage manufacturing businesses grew by 13 percent between 2010 and 2012, rising from 566 in 2010 to 639 in 2012. The majority of these businesses — 79 percent of them — are very small, with less than five employees. This group grew by 14 percent. Businesses with five to nine employees saw the most growth during this period; they grew by 38 percent.