They come from all over the region, no more than two dozen invited at a time. They drive to Bridgeton in rural Cumberland County, near Delaware Bay, for a five-hour seminar at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. “They are mostly individuals who have a great idea,” says Sho Islam, the center’s client services specialist. “It could be a family recipe, or ethnic product they consumed at home. They think it could go to the next level. Or it could be someone who has chef experience but doesn’t know manufacturing and distribution.”
The seminar, called Food Business Basics, aims to gently jolt the dreamers. “We explain upfront what’s involved, everything from government regulations to production and marketing costs,” Islam says. “Is this product viable, not only in terms of market demand, but technically? Can it be commercialized beyond the home stove at an efficient cost?”
Most aspirants leave with rethinking to do. Some are referred to their local Small Business Development Council (every Jersey county has one) to do market research or develop a business plan that the FIC can review and fine tune. The few deemed ready will be taken on as “clients” and offered a contract to shepherd their dream every step of the way to a retailer’s shelf. The cost to the entrepreneur is a one-time fee usually ranging from $3,000 to $5,000. The process can take as little as six months for simple jams and jellies or a year or more for complex products, especially those involving meat, which requires USDA approval.
“We’re truly soup to nuts,” says Diane Holtaway, FIC’s associate director for client services. “The breadth of services we offer is unique, not just in New Jersey but in the country.”
Husband and wife Jatin and Snehal Patel can testify to that. Wanting to bottle Snehal’s Asian and Indian “simmer” sauces—all-natural, gluten free and vegetarian, an unfilled market niche—they attended a Food Business Basics seminar in 2011 and were taken aboard. Today the couple’s tikka, bhartha and coconut-ginger sauces are available on their Beyond the Spice website, in the Princeton Whole Foods and in stores near their home in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania.
“We’ve learned so many things,” said Jatin, after peeling off a hairnet, smock and rubber boots he wore while stirring a 100-gallon kettle of sauce at FIC’s 23,000-square-foot facility, where many of its clients prepare and package their products. Added his wife, “We didn’t know the product has to stay fresh for two years on the shelf. We didn’t know we had to check Ph levels [which relate to shelf life]. They’ve helped with all of that.”
The first face newbies see is usually that of Julie Elmer, FIC’s associate director of food technology. “I help people optimize their ingredients, figure out nutrition facts, scale up their recipes,” she says.
Can the fledglings rightly be called entrepreneurs? “We think of an entrepreneur as somebody with a great idea and gumption, willing to think outside the box,” says Islam, who receives about 300 inquiries a year from prospective clients. “Strictly speaking, most have not started a business, but we like to define entrepreneur more broadly.”
Since the big Bridgeton facility opened in 2008 (FIC previously had a small office in town), about 600 people have attended a Food Business Basics seminar, out of which came about 75 contracts. So far 38 products have reached market—or been “birthed,” as FIC staffers like to say. Among the most successful, says Holtaway, have been Princeton-based First Field, whose all-natural gourmet ketchup (made from Jersey tomatoes) is available in 11 states and many Whole Foods stores, and Fair Lawn-based FatBoy Cookie Company, whose Frozen Outrageous Cookie Dough is in dozens of stores from New Jersey to Ohio, including several Whole Foods markets.
The center also works with food and pharmaceutical companies from the U.S. and abroad that want to introduce new products or refine existing ones. Corporate clients pay higher fees than individuals for services that include taste testing, product development and market research. About 35 percent of FIC’s clients are corporate.
The center reaches out to farmers as well—“to help them get grants,” says Islam, “and get them thinking about value-added products—instead of just selling fresh peaches, making a peach salsa.”
The FIC doesn’t try to be all things to all aspirants. If someone has a great idea for a dairy product, FIC will refer them to Pennsylvania or New York, which have better facilities for dairy production. Someone with a promising wheat-based product might be referred to the Midwest for similar reasons.
But those who have been through the FIC process feel like alumni and often return with new ideas or just to visit. “We get to catch up with them,” says Holtaway. “And to feel proud that we helped.”