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Cooking Up a Food Business? Add This Event to Your Menu | Survival Guide

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center helps food entrepreneurs take products from idea to market production. 

If you’ve ever taken a bite of an Impossible Burger, the plant-based patty sold at restaurants like Burger King in the form of an Impossible Whopper, you have tasted the hard work of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC), where new products are shaped from beginning to the end in a supportive, technically guided environment.

Set up in two locations at FIC South in Bridgeton and FIC North in Piscataway, the New Jersey resource center works with brands to take their new culinary ideas to their completion, helping at each step of the way with customization and the space to try new things.

In 2016, Impossible Foods began working with FIC, the latter assisting them with the tools and connections to build their brand up to a formidable name across the country. As one of TIME’s “Most Influential Companies of 2022, the meat alternative has been popular for those who are pursuing alternate food lifestyles or looking to lessen their consumption of beef.

With a success story like that, it’s easy to imagine how FIC’s “Food Business Basics Workshop,” a WEBEX virtual experience for early-stage food entrepreneurs, has become a large-scale event featuring more than 10 expert guest lecturers.

The event is being held over two days, Tuesday, May 10, and Wednesday, May 11, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with 15 minutes breaks in between the morning and afternoon panelists scheduled for each day.

The FIC, initially formed as part of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, is composed of food industry veterans from all backgrounds whose research harnesses their knowledge and connections. “We tend to be able to answer a lot of different questions, and for a lot of different clients, as we engage with them,” says Craig Peck, the senior manager of business development at FIC.

FIC specializes in the prepared food and beverage industry’s niche of acidified foods — jams, jellies, hot sauces, or as Peck explains, foods with a specific pH level that have to be properly heated and packaged.

At the Food Business Basics workshop, the same mix of broad knowledge and industry connections will be on display as professionals present on essential topics for newcomers to the food business.

“The Food Business Basics is a program that has been really successful in helping our clients understand what they’re getting into as they begin their journey as entrepreneurs,” Peck says. “We found that [with] food business basics, we can touch on a lot of different information for a pretty broad variety of clients, whether they be large or small, which can give them a really good jumping off [point] for what we’re working on.”

A full schedule of panelists, as well as where to register, can be found at Registration is $300 per person, and the last day to register is Thursday, May 5.

Encompassing everything from business to accounting tips, the presentations start on day one, then continue into specific topics such as how to position a product for brand success, fronted by Luminations Group founder and president Lisa Kent.

Multiple speakers will discuss trends for consumers, packaging, and food safety — the requirements for the latter, Peck notes, is one of their cornerstones in teaching at FIC.

“[These are] things that typical entrepreneurs aren’t going to wake up thinking about as they’re working on their great new sauce. We highlight and make some introductions and at least get their thoughts moving in these directions,” Peck says.

Attorney Danielle DeFilippis from the law firm Norris McLaughlin will talk about protecting brands through trademarks and intellectual property, then the next day, Julie Elmer, the associate director of food technology at FIC, will discuss how to take a product from their bench, or the prototype development, to commercialization.

After the panelists and speakers finish presenting on the second day, FIC inspires their attendees with an “entrepreneurial success story,” then includes a video tour of FIC South. Following that, attendees can schedule a one-on-one, 30-minute session with any of the panelists.

The keynote speaker, David Hodges, is the Collingswood Farmers Market director. He will be speaking about food as a cottage industry, in which people sell home-cooked and prepared food. Regulations changed last year to allow those with permits, as well as food protection manager certifications, to sell their products to consumers. Besides ensuring they do this legally, Hodges will help explain how newcomers can go about becoming involved.

“I find that a lot of our clients, as they begin going to market, would benefit from starting in a farmers market to work on their concept, to make sure that they’re getting direct feedback on a week-to-week basis,” Peck says.

Set to talk about his own journey of accomplishment this year is the developer of Simply Good Jars, Jared Cannon, who grew his shakeable salad brand into a profitable business — one that Peck says is garnering positive attention, particularly for its efforts towards sustainability.

Simply Good Jars packages its ready-made meals in reusable containers without using any preservatives to keep them fresh. The idea came from Cannon’s mission to work towards eliminating the amount of food wasted every day in the restaurant world and last year earned a $500,000 investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner of ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Peck says that the easiest, most basic way to explain how FIC works is to view it as if a local farmer was growing tomatoes, then decided they wanted to jar them for retail sale. FIC would step up, working in their USDA and FDA-inspected facility “to teach people from the beginning of the concept all the way through the commercialization stage.” The Bridgeton facility has dedicated spaces for long-term clients.

Taking a shared approach of mentoring and hands-on programs, clients move from manufacturing to markets with the help of FIC teams who ready a brand for distribution in areas like category review work, competitive assessment, and sensory analysis.

“We take what we find as we’re doing our market research, and then we integrate that into our research and development, kind of let that drive, especially regarding product innovation and differentiation of product,” Peck says. “It’s a really exciting place to work because we get to help people realize what their idea was, taken all the way through to hopefully seeing it on the shelf somewhere or at a farmers market or online.”

Peck explains that in the first run of the product, the benchtop samples go from their Research & Development Kitchen to a scale up room, where the size is increased to ensure the formula can be economized. The amount can scale, for example, from a five-gallon sample to a 500-gallon test run.

Clients can fine tune their formulas, check out the process, and experiment, as Peck explains, putting together “a home for them to come [to] before they move into their own facility or go to a co-manufacturer.”

Nolan Lewin is the executive director and director of operations at FIC. He says that the Rutgers FIC facilities are unique for being a place to share a concept, develop a prototype, and leave with a sellable product. But that all starts with the proper foundation.

“When we first opened, we actually used to require people to take this business basics workshop in order to be able to work with us,” Lewin adds. Then, all of the inquiries made it easier for them to just put together this program, held “at least two times a year over the past three or four years,” he says, as FIC tries to make it less of a course and more of a conversation.

Because of the pandemic, another added dimension is in the way that FIC’s workshop has become increasingly accessible. The virtual options have allowed them to cover more topics, yet also eliminates the need for people to travel.

While FIC is helping expose people to partnerships and services, Peck, who has worked in everything from merchandising to opening a restaurant of his own, knows that a benefits of a workshop like this can be to provide the support these small companies may be lacking.

“I think what we are really good at here is explaining to people all of the phases that they’re going to need to work through as they take their product to market, and we’re very methodical about what the phases are with new product development,” Peck says, adding that prior knowledge is a bonus, but for a business to grow, the product needs to speak for itself.

“What story does their brand tell as it starts to mature, but how does it start, and how do they leverage what they’re working on with their brand story to make it successful? What is their packaging, and how are they thinking about all of these individual components of creating a great food product, and ultimately a food brand, that they can come work on here in New Jersey with us?” he asks.

Lewin adds that sometimes, FIC having a personal investment in wanting to see people do great things might even mean discouraging clients from a product.

“Most of the time, people thank us for that honesty, that level of transparency,” he says, continuing that his go-to line is “your success is really our success,” which serves as the motivating factor to why FIC operates the way it does.

“What we like to give is experiential learning, because we’re not academia, we’re not professors,” he says. “We’re all seasoned industry veterans who bring that experience to the table and have the stories and battle scars to prove it. I hope that people realize that we’re not teaching theoretical here — we’re teaching the real world.”

With the right opportunity, initiative, and tenacity, Lewin continues, commitment to a brand can bring great success. Sometimes, that means going completely outside of the box.

“The plant-based items are what we’re really getting a lot of notoriety for,” Lewin says, working with brands like Impossible Foods and the Nestlé-backed Sundial Foods, which is currently developing a plant-based chicken wing. Another brand FIC has been proud to work alongside is Fila Manila, a brand of bold Filipino flavors with jarred simmer sauces.

“Now those are the kind of people that make that commitment to developing products and see it through, even if it takes years, and sometimes it does, but if it’s the right product at the right time, the rewards can be really, really astounding,” Lewin says.

In the last 20 or 30 years, Lewin says, small brands have shown their strength against large food companies, some of whom went from “resting on their laurels” to being challenged.

Now, with victories for names like Impossible Foods, that has become more common. FIC expects to assist these companies, and by attending the Food Business Basics Workshop, aspiring food entrepreneurs can learn the fundamentals, as well as how to make the seemingly impossible possible.

For Peck, that is all he can ask for.

“The best success we have is when a client works with us on the product, and we take them through all the phases that we offer. Then, they wind up setting up shop here in Jersey and driving economic development,” he says. “It’s really what it’s about for us.”