Thursday, May 08, 2014
When Nicholette “Nico” Lustig took the newly created job of “food business development specialist” at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center a couple of months ago, she began working with the same sorts of farmers and specialty food businesses she had dealt with as manager at McCusker’s Market and jobs at Green Fields Market and Old Creamery Co-Op in Cummington.
The Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s 13-year-old shared commercial kitchen has seen some ups and downs as it has tried to spawn food businesses largely fed by farms around the region, all aimed at stirring the grassroots economy. Lustig’s job was created to help make better use of the 3,500-square-foot facility housed at the Wells Street Greenfield Venture Center, especially at a traditionally slow time of year when production on area farms is low, according to John Waite, executive director of the CDC.
Lustig, who has been talking up the food processing center at a variety of trade shows — from the Boston Local Food Show to the New England Meat Conference — works with center manager Liz Buxton to promote the shared kitchen, which actually has three separate tracks.
As one of four CDC business development specialists, Lustig works with entrepreneurs who approach her with an idea for a food-related startup and helps them with everything from developing a business plan and doing market research to finding financing and developing and testing recipes, plus helping find potential markets. Those businesses, with access to other technical assistance and lending available through the CDC, may go on to become one of the users of the shared commercial kitchen.
While these businesses formed the core of center users, some of those customers — like Real Pickles, Hillside Organic Pizza and Chubby’s Sauces — have outgrown the CDC like other “incubated” businesses at the Venture Center.
A second track has been businesses that not only rent the kitchen, but hire CDC staff there to produce their products, from a full line of Atkins Farm products to Herrell’s Hot Fudge and Boston Burger salsas. Lustig works with these businesses to develop and test recipes and to expand their product line, which are prepared by Buxton and a part-time staff that grows to about a dozen during the peak of harvest season.
Although the kitchen broke even in 2006, and came close again in charging users fees to cover operating expenses, it fell behind as some businesses left and it added a food processing director’s position.
The center staff started freezing vegetables in 2010 as a way of extending the growing season for farmers. It ramped up that part of its business in 2011, chopping, washing, blanching and freezing 3,000 pounds of broccoli that year for the Holyoke public schools and in 2012 freezing 65,000 pounds of cauliflower, peppers, zucchini, squash, turnips, tomatoes and carrots for sale to schools and other institutions.
That farm-to-school business, which fell off last year as Waite tried to run the food processing center on his own for several months, has been limited by the CDC’s 320-cubic-foot freezer capacity and its lack of needed “individual quick freeze” equipment that would allow carrots, for example, to be peeled, cut into coins, blanched, dried, and then frozen individually on a conveyor belt. The idea has been floated for at least three years, but Lustig said she and other members of the CDC staff have been meeting with architects, engineers and vendors about ordering a freezer that can be in place by this coming growing season, with the center contracting with farmers to grow crops for schools.
The center, which is waiting to hear about a new grant that provides roughly another $170,000 toward what is a $500,000 project, plans to rent part of that freezer capacity — big enough to handle 156 pallets — to Real Pickles and other “alumni” that have outgrown the shared kitchen but need additional storage space at the height of the season.
Waite said one constraint is that to use the center efficiently, it takes a minimum of about a ton of vegetables for processing in a day. That will probably ramp up to two tons a day once the new equipment arrives this summer, requiring either larger farms or a couple of farms coordinating their deliveries to the Greenfield kitchen.
“For now, enough farmers keep saying, ‘if you pay, we’ll plant more,’” said Waite.
The CDC’s “Pioneer Valley Vegetables” brand — with the name of the producing farm right on the 5-pound frozen package — has sold to Boston University this past year, but Lustig said the hope is to get Sysco, Costa, Performance Food Group and other distributors to list the products so that when more school districts go “shopping,” they can find the local or regional products that districts say they’re hungry for.
The center has also packed tomato sauce for Red Fire Farm in Montague to provide to its CSA customers and to sell at farmers markets as a way of extending its season and it has been freezing soups for Just Roots Farm to provide for Stone Soup Cafe.
The kitchen was recently licensed to prepare fully cooked or partially cooked meat products for refrigeration or freezing, and Lustig has been working with a meat-pie maker as well as a maker of Puerto Rican-style meat and potato balls. There’s also the potential, she said, for Just Roots to begin making soups with locally raised chicken.
Lustig, who got her food-marketing start working with rice farmers in Thailand, said the quick-freeze will also allow the kitchen to begin freezing blueberries, strawberries, apples and peaches for area farmers.
Bart’s is already using the kitchen to add peaches, strawberries, blueberries and apples to its ice creams, and Ooma Tesoro’s, Tortured Orchard and Relish the Harvest are among the 20 to 25 businesses that use the kitchen. But Lustig hopes that the added freezer capacity, and new meat-processing license will allow the food processing center to grow, just as its farm and business customers do.
With a two-year grant from the Kendall Foundation paying her salary to allow the center to fill out its schedule, she said, “The way we see that we can be viable is to fill this place up every week, every month.”
On the Web: www.fccdc.org/food-processing