On the Menu: Programs for food entrepreneurs expand statewide

Wisconsinites have never been known to shy away from either good food or good drink. Call it a part of our heritage. And while we may not always make the healthiest of choices, few can doubt that – for the most part – we’re a happy lot, particularly when we’re imbibing with friends or soon-to-be friends.

It stands to reason, then, that the food entrepreneurism trend that is sweeping the nation has also taken hold here. After all, can more cooks in the kitchen be a bad thing?

Over the past several years, food incubators, culinary school expansions, and other food-related businesses have been sprouting up like – dare we say it? – weeds. Perhaps it’s all due to the proliferation of food programs on television, and a Food Network that just celebrated its highest cable TV ratings quarter ever, attracting an average of 1.3 million viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. In fact, the network’s 20% ratings growth over 2011 explains why the Food Network is now the ninth-highest-rated network on cable.

The proof is in the pudding. People simply like to eat, and these days, more and more entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in on our culinary desires. Throughout the state, colleges and incubators are serving up a full menu of courses and kitchens to tap into the trend, and help their local communities.

Comfort food

“Food is something everyone knows about,” explains Armen Hadjinian, program coordinator at the Entrepreneurship Center at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). “Everyone eats, and the scalability of restaurants and food is really broad. You can open something as small as a hot dog stand, or a full-service restaurant. But you need a little more training before you turn the open sign on.”

Hadjinian has helped develop a one-year, full-time Diploma in Entrepreneurship program at MATC targeted toward entrepreneurs of all stripes. When it came to designing the 30-credit degree program, the school looked at programs around the country, and found many of them to be tech-based. “There was nothing hands-on or grass roots. So if you wanted to start a restaurant, there wasn’t a model outside of what people had done. Here, everything we teach, from baking to horticulture, lends itself to small business.”

"You can open something as small as a hot dog stand, or a full-service restaurant. But you need a little more training before you turn the open sign on.” – Armen Hadjinian, Milwaukee Area Technical College

Beginning this fall, a baker, coffee expert, and even someone who makes “raw” energy bars will join landscapers, artists, and software people furthering their entrepreneurial dreams.

MATC has a culinary school, but Hadjinian’s program will take students beyond cooking and baking classes and into the nuts and bolts of running the business. He agrees that opening a restaurant can be very challenging. “I tell students they’d better work in a restaurant for at least a year to see what it’s like,” he said. “Anyone can go out to dinner, have fun, or cook for a group of friends, but when you’re cooking for 100 people, seven days a week, and you expect them to pay for a meal, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Hadjinian, who has just inked The Entrepreneur’s Launch Guide, suggests those interested in making food preparation their livelihood should ask themselves several questions first:

  • Why would people like your food? (Is it tasty? Convenient? Nutritious? Exotic?)
  • How will you get the word out about your food? (Social media? Free samples? Consignment?)
  • How will you display or package your food? (It must look attractive.)
  • How big do you want to be? (Are you willing to give up some control to reach a larger audience? Is there enough business in the neighborhood to achieve your goals?)

His MATC curriculum includes courses in business plan design and strategic communication development that will teach students about public speaking and self-promotion. “You have no advertising budget, so you’ll have to talk to people, and knock on doors, to get the word out.”

That may be the most difficult part for some.

Hadjinian notes that the ease of instant and electronic communications these days – on Facebook and Twitter – has led to a generation of students who not only lack communication skills but are often starved for physical socialization. “It’s kind of sad,” he said. “I’ve been teaching for decades, and up until texting and computers, I’d have to tell students to be quiet. Now, no one talks to one another! They’re texting all the time, and classmates often don’t know each other unless they’re forced to be introduced.”

FEEDing a village

What many foodies might understand about food preparation, they might lack in business knowledge. “[Owning a restaurant] doesn’t require a degree,” says Ellen Barnard, project chair of the FEED Kitchen project in Madison, who notes that there is a general lack of food literacy in society today. “Schools don’t offer home ec anymore,” she said. The trend toward eating and cooking more healthy foods is good, but it takes some knowledge to be able to do that. “Kids aren’t learning how to boil an egg, so there’s a more acute need to have spaces where healthy foods are being prepared.”

Barnard, a Madison small business owner and entrepreneur in her own right, partly attributes the surge in food-related entrepreneurism to the local food movement, such as Dane Buy Local in Dane County, Wis., as well as to the increase in unemployed people looking to redefine their careers. “The economic crisis has taught us that small business is important, and self-reliance is important,” she said.

Barnard, a member of Madison’s Northside Planning Council (NPC), which owns the Madison FEED Kitchen (Food Enterprise & Economic Development), said the kitchen is the culmination of an idea that started about four years ago to provide shared kitchen spaces. Community discussions had long touted the need for shared-use food processing commercial kitchen space that people could rent by the hour.

“Farmers hated throwing away thousands of pounds of produce every year because they couldn’t sell it all at a market stand. If only it could be processed into sauces or salsas, it wouldn’t be wasted.” With higher than normal unemployment, nonprofits were noticing a huge need for trained bakery and food service workers. They wanted to do the training, but didn’t have a place. “Someone might want to start a food cart, or another might want to start a catering service, but most had little or no access to a commercial kitchen.”

The 5,400-square-foot FEED Kitchen should help fill that niche. The 24-hour facility will be equipped with five different kitchen spaces to serve the various needs of food entrepreneurs. There will be a meat cooking and processing kitchen, available for post-butchering sausage-making, curing, and soups, and a produce processing kitchen with equipment for chopping, slicing, dicing and making snack packs for frozen or canned produce. A deli area will allow people to prepare deli sandwiches and package them for sale to the public, and a bakery kitchen – the most requested kitchen – will give bakers access to commercial-grade, high-volume equipment with which to prepare sweet treats. The FEED kitchen will also include a training and community kitchen, designed for up to a dozen trainees who can learn basic cooking and baking skills. It would also double as a community kitchen for cooking classes or group projects.

It all takes money, of course. And as of this writing, Barnard said the board is working to fill a $365,000 gap before the kitchen can break ground. At that point, the FEED Kitchen would have raised enough to remain debt-free and to be able to take on some debt, but it will be self-sustaining. “Everyone will pay,” Barnard said. “We’d prefer not to have a lot of debt service so we can grow the business with more breathing room.” Rental rates are expected to run between $15 and $25 per hour.

Food theatrics

Breathing room is exactly what Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) will be gaining when the Appleton, Wis. campus adds a 9,300-square-foot Jones Dairy Farm Culinary Arts Theater by the end of the year. With about 350 culinary and 125 hospitality students (and a waiting list), the technical school has one of the largest programs in the state. About three years ago, a top-to-bottom accreditation review by the American Culinary Association noted one fact – they were lacking a demonstration kitchen or facility.

Rendering of plans for the Jones Dairy Farm Culinary Theater at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis.

“We’ve had issues here for years, not being able to pull the students all together, and when this recommendation was made, we knew we should pursue it,” said Dr. Susan May, president of FVTC. What will be the state’s first-ever multi-media demonstration cooking theater will seat 120 individuals and allow the school to offer chef-led demonstrations in a high-tech kitchen complete with video cameras, tiered seating, and tables.

Jones Dairy Farm reportedly agreed to cover half the $1.9 million cost, with a lead gift of $125,000 if the school could raise the rest. The company, of Fort Atkinson, Wis., has been very involved with the school for years as a vendor and supplier.

The college, May explained, picked up a large part of the cost, and industry partners, program graduates, and suppliers quickly raised $500,000, which was $200,000 above its goal.

“The food industry works very closely with us,” said May. “They often have new products, trends, culinary production that they want to demonstrate. For us to be able to bring vendors in for demonstration or product unveilings is very exciting.”

She also sees the new venue doubling as a venue for other community events and fundraising.

Donna Elliott, FVTC’s executive dean for business, health, and service programs, concurred: “We can look at equipment vendors, new induction apparatus, food vendors with new types of products, molecular gastronomy (blending science and culinary), studying chemical reactions that encase food products, like salad dressings.”

It’s what the community wants. “We serve a nine-county area,” May explained. “What we’re really trying to do is address the food service, hospitality, and culinary programs in this part of the state. The local community advises us so we can be responsive.”

Food on display

Meanwhile, in Madison, Madison College (aka Madison Area Technical College) wants to move its culinary school to the heart of the city’s downtown restaurant scene and famous Saturday farmers market. The tech school has proposed an $8 million, three-story, glass-encased building that would house its culinary, baking, food service production, and other hospitality programs. Madison’s only culinary program enrolls about 200 students, but at any given time, about 100 are waiting in line, and the current school, located near the airport, lacks space.

If it receives approvals, the new school would include a retail bakery, dining room, and demonstration kitchen that will be on display to passersby. The school would be paid for from monies approved in a 2010 $133.8 million building referendum, although the culinary school was not listed as a part of that referendum. College officials claim other building projects tied to that referendum came in under budget, allowing for the 30,000-square-foot culinary school that officials hope can be operational by the end of 2013.

It’s clear that Wisconsin will long remain a state that encourages delectable dining choices and the die-hard foodies willing to provide them. Soon, they will have a healthy selection of schools and programs to help launch their recipes.

In the long run, it is we, the connoisseurs, who will benefit.

We’ll toast to that.

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