The Innovation Kitchen

Rick Terrien of the Iowa County Economic Development Corporation

A new local food processing business creates much-needed jobs for adults with disabilities. And while helping to serve people in need a model of horizontal supply management is emerging to also make opportunities for culinary entrepreneurs and area growers. Operated by the Hodan Center, a non-profit adult rehabilitation center in Mineral Point, the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen provides a safe working environment and skills training to craft commercial grocery items from the produce of farmers throughout the Capital Region.

“There are about 150 products that our clients help us make. That’s what creates jobs,” said director of food services Annette Pierce. “We provide products for 750 stores in 26 states.”

Under the brand Papa Pat’s Farmhouse Recipes as many as 25 area workers, each with a mental or physical disability, assist with food processing. Called clients, employees perform several important tasks that include baking, canning, dehydration and dry mix production. “There is quite a bit of training involved,” Pierce said. “The clients have not only to process the ingredients, but they also have to follow the health codes.”

Located on the site of a former restaurant the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen is a full service industrial food processing facility. Funded by a $750,000 community block grant from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, the Mineral Point plant is also supported in part by the U.S.D.A and more than 300 local donors. With both state and federal certification, items made and packaged here include jams, pickles, relishes, and mixes for soups, muffins, pancakes and cookies. But with the capacity to create a variety of different products the Innovation Kitchen also works with those who aim to share recipes of their own.

“We make their products completely for them right down to labeling them,” Pierce said. “We also buy local produce for local businesses who want to work with local farmers.”

Peter Robertson owner of RP’s Pasta in Madison works with the Innovation Kitchen to fulfill the needs of a very specific food profile.

“We consciously made the choice that everything we have access to would be made in Wisconsin,” he said.

Although several commercial suppliers could make processed foods available, Robertson opted to go with the Mineral Point facility to provide vegetables for his stuffed ravioli and tortellini. “They did it fast. They did it efficiently. And it’s 100 percent Wisconsin products,” he said. “With them we can follow our philosophy, which is from farm to fork with a conscience.”

For Robertson and other entrepreneurs in the food business, providing jobs for the disabled is only part of the equation. In addition to supporting nearby farmers, local food production cuts down on the cost of transportation. It also reduces carbon emissions with fewer trucks on the highway traveling thousands of miles across the country to make deliveries.

“Trucking has become incredibly cheap. And as fuel is subsidized by the federal government food can be trucked from just about anywhere,” said Jeremy Lynch chief culinarian at Enos Farms in Spring Green. “And if you can deliver vegetables and fruits out of season you can squeeze out the little guy.”

In our current vertically integrated system of food distribution large processing facilities produce both ingredients and packaged goods to be shipped nation-wide. Small producers like Lynch are frequently overlooked in favor of remote industrial farming operations. But in a model that favors instead small scale production over shorter distances, a horizontal structure can be established that employs more small businesses and area growers that provide a diverse food supply to communities often less than 200 miles away.

“Our goal is to re-localize the food system in Chicago,” said Karen Lehman of Fresh Taste, a local food advocacy group that recently visited the Innovation Kitchen from Illinois. “In a city of 8 million people we’re interested in seeing more facilities like this in the food shed. They help to build more resilient communities, that promote the health of their citizens, create jobs and establish new businesses.”

Lynch operates a small food operation that aspires to service area restaurants and grocery stores. With a stand at the Hilldale Farmers Market his products include pepper relish and cranberry ginger sauce processed and canned at the Innovation Kitchen. His latest item is pumpkin seed oil prepared in small batches at the Mineral Point facility. “Showing up with just vegetables doesn’t cut it. This is a way to diversify my offering,” Lynch said. “There a lot of waste in food production and my business helps to soak up some of the surplus.”

The Innovation Kitchen makes it possible for low volume operations to create viable market products using both local labor and resources. Not only does that mean jobs but also market expansion. “The Innovation Kitchen is a machine to make new businesses,” said Rick Terrien of the Iowa County Economic Development Corporation. “With full food certification we can help entrepreneurs create products that can be sold anywhere in the United States. We can give you the training to come in and make it yourself. But the real opportunity is for us to make it for you.”

Foodies who dream of creating their own brand can have their recipes ready made. Terrien builds community relationships to encourage businesses to use the Innovation Kitchen as their production facility. “That’s the best way. You can get lost in the minutia of making your food,” Terrien said. “Really as an entrepreneur I want you out there selling your food.”

Co-packaging facilities like the Innovation Kitchen are not uncommon. There are several around the country. But high minimum volumes make them unattainable to the small business owner. “You have to buy a semi-load,” Terrien said. “But the joy of this place is you can buy just a few cases and create your own virtual business. Once we’re set up we can buy the ingredients, prep them, package them, label them, store them and ship them. You don’t have to touch it. ”

Rates for production and packaging products vary with the complexity of ingredients and recipes. But with low minimums Greg Lawless, director of the Agriculture Innovation Center at the University of Wisconsin Extension, said facilities like the Innovation Kitchen can help entrepreneurs get started in a tough economy.

“Food processing at least part-time is a good way to start a small business,” he said. “It may be a slow way to create jobs, but it’s proven. If the Kitchen can support 25 new start-ups a year over time those will grow to the point where they can start employing people.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of the Capital Region Business Journal philanthropy feature “Good Works”

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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