Recipe for Success: Entrepreneurs Concoct Businesses

by November 20, 2015 0 comments

SLU Blends New Equipment, Consulting, Manpower to Boost Food Startups

ST. LOUIS — A refurbished industrial kitchen in the basement of a Saint Louis University building has grown into an incubator for a batch of new food businesses in the region.

The Salus Center kitchen on SLU’s campus has been used as a food lab to teach university nutrition and dietetics students the culinary skills to operate restaurants, bakeries and catering businesses and work as personal chefs and nutrition and cooking consultants. In addition, SLU uses the facility to prepare breakfasts and lunches for six elementary and middle schools in the region.

But now, thanks in part to a $196,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture that funded new equipment and expanded preparation facilities, there are more cooks in the kitchen.

During the summer and early fall, SLU updated its walk-in refrigerators and freezer, purchased two more blast chillers to cool bulk foods, and added a hot-fill unit to directly pour food from a steam jacket kettle into Cryovac food bags – all to increase food safety and efficiency.

A dozen small food businesses now rent space in the shared use kitchen, which is the region’s only food processing space other than large commercial plants, said Steve Jenkins, assistant professor and director of food innovation and entrepreneurship at SLU.

“Many times people have a great idea for a food business but don’t have a place to prepare their food. We rent out our kitchen space, which meets rigorous food safety standards and has multiple preparation stations where food entrepreneurs work,” Jenkins said.

“The shared use kitchen is not designed to be a revenue generator for SLU but supports its own operation. It allows us to make the resources of the university available to the community for economic development, small entrepreneurs and to build food systems. Many of our clients would not be able to function without us.”

Faculty, interns and graduate students from SLU’s department of nutrition and dietetics also are available to consult with the companies, offering guidance and suggestions on food safety, nutritional analyses of their products and scaling recipes for large production. If they need helping hands to put their plan into action, businesses can hire SLU students to prepare the foods.

“Our goal is to help businesses grow and thrive,” Jenkins says.

Jessie-Pearle Hairston, who owns Jessie-Pearle’s Poundcakes Etc., moved her custom baking business to the Salus Center kitchen in July. She sells her goodies, which include her namesake pound cake created from a family recipe, gooey butter cookies and cream cheese pecan pie, at farmers markets and by order.

“Working here, I can produce more, which means I can sell more. It’s beautiful and clean and the oven space is divine,” says Hairston, 68, who has baked for 55 years.

“The best thing about coming here is you have all of the tools you need. Everything is in its proper place. It’s an excellent setup for a person like me, who doesn’t want to fold up like a $2 suitcase. I want to give older people hope that they can awaken their dreams, as I did through baking and sharing my knowledge with younger people.”

Other food businesses are directly connected to Saint Louis University, spun out of the nutrition and dietetics program.

For instance, a former nutrition and dietetics student who is now an instructor turned his master’s thesis -– how to bring locally produced tofu to the St. Louis market –- into a business when he started MOFU Tofu. Using locally grown, non-GMO soybeans, Dan Brewer makes small batch tofu in the Salus Center kitchen, which is sold to restaurants and independent retail stores in St. Louis.

Amelia Karges, who received her master’s in nutrition and dietetics/culinary entrepreneurship, put the business plan she created for a SLU entrepreneurship class into practice when she opened her Rebel Roots caramel apple business last year. During the fall, she prepares 80 apples a week, which she sells at farmers markets and pop-up events and by special order. She’s operating in the black.

Her caramel apples are a riff off her grandmother’s recipe, infused with flavors the likes of beer with pretzel bits, homemade marshmallow with graham cracker crumbles and peppercorn caramel topped with black pepper cracker crumbs. St. Louis Magazine named her treats among the city’s best caramel apples in 2015.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for the kitchen space at SLU,” Karges says. “You can toy with an idea and having the space to put it into action saves a lot of time and money and allows you to focus on your specific project and see if you can dive into something bigger.”

Two years ago, Karges worked in the Salus Center kitchen as a graduate student and sees a great improvement in the facilities. “Adding new equipment has been a huge step toward efficiency.”

Many of the businesses that share SLU’s kitchen have a strong service component, falling into the social entrepreneurship category that provides job training as well as a marketable food product.

A woman’s shelter uses the space to teach residents cooking skills as they bake chicken pot pies, which are sold in grocery stores to help support the operation of the facility.

Through Sylvester Brown’s Sweet Potato Project, North St. Louis high school students learn work and business skills to spur neighborhood economic redevelopment. They are hired to grow sweet potatoes in urban farms close to where they live, which they bake into cookies in the Salus kitchen and sell.

Fresh Start Dog Food teaches men who have been homeless the skills to prepare dog food and dog and cat treats, which are sold at pet stores, Tower Grove Farmers Market and online. The pet food is niche: made entirely of organic meats and fruits, containing no preservatives, and even fit for consumption by people who like liver.

“Being involved with SLU has upgraded everything,” said Michael Desmond, a volunteer with the organization. “The new flash freezer allows us to cut our production time, and stainless steel everything — knives and other appliances — are state of the art.”

SLU’s Jenkins consulted with Fresh Start to create its business plan. “It helps to have someone who understands food advising you and we hope to expand our operation,” Desmond said.

Jenkins said one of his goals is to help businesses in the Salus Center kitchen outgrow SLU’s facility. One such business, Fred and Ricky’s, was so successful in piloting its ready-to-eat vegan meals that it is constructing its own production facility in northwest St. Louis County. To pilot its concept, Fred and Ricky’s used SLU faculty to develop recipes and hired SLU student workers to prepare the meals in the Salus Center kitchen.

“They outgrew us pretty quickly and happily so,” Jenkins says. “If businesses expand dramatically, they’re going to need to go someplace else, which is just what we had in mind.” •

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