All the Ingredients Are Here
Entrepreneurs looking to break into the food business will find plenty of help in New Orleans.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
illustration by Tony Healey
Are you renowned for your salad dressing? A backyard BBQ legend thanks to your sauce? If you love food, and have a bit of the entrepreneur in you, the food business just might be for you!
Culinary entrepreneurship is at an all-time high in the Crescent City. Whether it’s a certified kitchen for recipe testing or a food production facility you need, it’s all available for the asking.
A Museum that’s Fab for Entrepreneurs
Thanks to a gift from the estate of Paul C. P. McIlhenny, for a mere $25 per hour newcomers can have access to the Rouses Culinary Innovation Center housed within the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The museum’s kitchen is a certified commissary kitchen, where small-scale baking and other food production is possible. SoFab is also willing to sell an entrepreneur’s products from the museum’s gift shop.
Canadian Sara Levasseur has used SoFab’s kitchen since 2015. As a teenager in Ottawa, she learned the art of preserving raspberries from her grandmother, Beverly. After introducing her creations to locals at the Crescent City Farmers Market, Levasseur’s company, Jamboree Jams, is finding success with a broader audience online.
Edible Enterprises Provides the Next Step
What happens when sales exceed the capacity of SoFab’s kitchen or when goods require shelf-stable packaging? That’s when Sanjay Kharod, executive director of New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN), comes into the picture.
In 2014, St. Charles Parish approached Kharod about his organization managing their food processing facility, which the parish originally built for Goodwill Enterprises.
The 10,000-square-foot facility in Norco is one of three in Louisiana where products can be bottled or packaged for grocery shelves and out-of-state distribution.
Kharod had long sought a way to help farmers make use of excess crops with added-value products and founded Edible Enterprises as a way to help make that happen. When NOFFN took possession of the facility, there were only three tenants. Today’s number exceeds 30 – an indicator of the burst in culinary entrepreneurism taking place in New Orleans.
Making the jump onto grocery store shelves is often the acid test for food startups. Kharod and the NOFFN team guide Edible Enterprise tenants from the start. First, the State Health Department requires a thorough, written processing plan. The application covers sourcing, handling, washing, storage, manufacturing and marketing – great experience for any first-time entrepreneur.
Also essential is the recall plan. From day one, tenants are asked to show all purchasing records to allow for full traceability. NOFFN also offers consulting tips.
“Having your label language USDA-approved before investing in logo design” is the sort of advice that Kharod says “allows you to try the idea you’ve had for years without going broke trying.”
Chobani’s Incubator Program
In 1994, Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States as a young, non-English speaking Turkish immigrant. Despite that, by 2002 he founded Chobani Yogurt, which is now the most successful brand of Greek yogurt in America. With a desire to pay it forward, Ulukaya created the Chobani incubator program, designed to nurture the next generation of food entrepreneurs.
On Jan. 16, Chobani hosted a happy hour in New Orleans to recruit locals for their 2019 incubator. Held at Big Easy Bucha, the event buzzed with excitement as local cupcake and kimchi makers mingled with jam and baby food businesses, a rare opportunity for budding entrepreneurs to mix.
To be considered, companies must already have a packaged food item with minimum annual sales ranging from $50,000 to $2 million dollars. Applications were accepted through January.
All winning participants receive an equity-free grant of $25,000 and four weeks in intensive workshops over four months. Participants receive one-on-one mentoring from Chobani leadership on sales, operations, financial and legal considerations. There is a “demo day” when participants pitch a large network of investors for financial capital. Chobani facilitates sales and marketing visits to top retailers like Walmart and Kroger.
It’s clear, the city where Creole cuisine was born is hard at work incubating future foods of the 21st century.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.