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Program offers information on launching a food-based business

Beth Irons, agriculatural incubator kitchen manager at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County, works with 2019 From Recipe to Market program participants at Mohawk Valley Community College’s commercial kitchen on its Rome campus. The program teaches would-be food entrepreneurs how to bring a product to market. (PHOTO CREDIT: CORNELL COOPERATIVE EXTENSION OF ONEIDA COUNTY)

ROME, N.Y. — For everyone that whipped up some sourdough bread while in lockdown and thought, “I should sell this,” Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County has just the program to help make that happen.

The From Recipe to Market program, in partnership with Mohawk Valley Community College’s Rome campus, kicks off March 9 and teaches aspiring food-business entrepreneurs what they need to know to bring their dream to reality.

“The idea of the course is to give people a peek behind the wizard’s curtains into running a business about food products,” says Beth Irons, Oneida County Public Market manager and agricultural incubator kitchen manager at Cooperative Extension.

It’s an opportunity for those people who make those delicious cupcakes everyone says they should sell to see just what is involved in the process, Irons says.

“People who go into these kinds of businesses do it through their passion,” she says. This program helps connect their passion with a plan.

The six-part workshop series, which starts March 9, meets every Wednesday from 5:30-8:30 p.m. and covers a wealth of topics including the various legal requirements, how to develop a business plan, how commercial kitchens work, food safety, and marketing, or as Irons likes to say, “Once you get it on the shelf, how are going to get it off the shelves.”

Every food product is different, and the process for selling maple syrup, for example, won’t necessarily be the same as it is for selling baked goods. The program teaches participants where to go to learn the requirements for their particular product.

On top of learning what it takes behind the scenes to launch a food product, participants will also tour the commercial kitchens at MVCC’s Rome campus and get a taste for what it’s like to produce commercial-sized batches of a product. Making a 60-gallon batch of salsa in a commercial kitchen is much different than making a small batch at home, Irons notes.

Participants will also practice their product pitch, which is important, Irons says. “They need to be able to talk about their product if they want to sell their product,” she says.

One of the most-important elements of the program is the professional network of contacts it introduces participants to, Irons says. For those who go onto the next steps of the process, they will already have contacts at commercial kitchens and more to help them. “We’re already putting them in touch with the right people to take the next steps,” Irons notes.

While she didn’t name specific businesses, Irons says past participants in the program have included producers of salsa, pizza sauce, and specialty baked goods such as gluten-free or vegan products. This spring is the fourth time Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County has offered the program.

Some have gone on to bring a product to market, while others have opted not to, Irons says. “This helps someone who thinks they want to start an ag-based business decide if they want to take the next step.”

For Rebecca Spartano, of Utica, the program was an informative and eye-opening experience. She participated in the spring 2021 program to learn more about brining her hummus recipe to market.

“It was a lot of information, and it was awesome actually,” she says. While Spartano wasn’t completely in the dark about what was required, the wide variety of topics brought a wealth of information on government regulations, packaging, mass production, and more.

Before the program, she didn’t understand many of the government regulations or know how to go about finding a commercial kitchen with which to partner.

“You have no idea what’s really involved, and you should really take this course,” Spartano says to prospective food entrepreneurs. The information learned will help prevent mistakes and provide an ongoing support network.

Ultimately, Spartano decided not to move forward with her idea. “It wasn’t the right product, and it wasn’t the right time,” she notes. But she still has a binder full of information and a list of contacts if she has another idea in the future.

The program, which costs $75 per person currently, typically takes about 15 participants each time it’s offered.