Each week, Guac Shop owner Danielle Arbinger loads up the ingredients she needs to make her specialty guacamole products and heads to the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen (NOCK), located in the Agricultural Incubator Foundation in Bowling Green, Ohio. There, she spends about five hours preparing, packaging and labeling her products so they can be sold in retail outlets. Arbinger is one of about 30 food-related business owners who utilize the commercial equipment at the NOCK and benefit from technical assistance provided to those interested in starting their own food product or business.
Since June of 2018, Arbinger has been participating in the Small Business Program at the NOCK, which provides her with guidance in areas such as food safety, licensing and shelf life testing. Starting her own food business, “has been a whirlwind,” said Arbinger. However, she mentioned that the advice she’s received through the Small Business Program has saved her years of trial and error. “They give you a path to follow. I would not have known the steps to take and what I needed,” she explained.
Small Business Coordinator Paula Ray explains how food products are added to jars and sealed in the processing kitchen at the NOCK.
The NOCK is managed by the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT), a nonprofit organization created to provide technical solutions to food processing companies, and a partner of the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
Danielle Arbinger, owner of Guac Shop, prepares guacamole in a Hobart mixer at the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Although the NOCK is in northwest Ohio, the facility and its program are open to anyone who needs assistance getting his or her food business off the ground. “We are not just for Ohio,” said Rebecca Singer, president and CEO of CIFT. “Anyone with an idea is welcome to stop in and meet with our director, Paula Ray. She will direct them through the production and provide a roadmap of the steps involved in the process,” she added.
The NOCK is also available to existing businesses. “We can help businesses expand their product and help them grow. Some companies come to us and already have one product. Others want to add new products but are not sure how to get there. We can provide an added level of resources to help them be more efficient,” explained Singer. There are no restrictions to use the NOCK, but participants must have general liability insurance and a business plan. Businesses using the NOCK, referred to as tenants, sign a lease and pay a monthly rent based on usage.
Danielle Arbinger and her friend, Alicia Carmody, chop and prepare ingredients for four varieties of guacamole in the general kitchen.
Working with the NOCK can help a small business save thousands of dollars. “Many would not be able to afford the equipment and licenses. Products must be approved by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the FDA and the local health department,” Singer noted.
There are two kitchens at the NOCK. Arbinger uses the smaller general kitchen where she produces about 50 pounds total of her four varieties of guacamole to deliver to area retailers such as Sautter’s Food Market in Sylvania. “My production will increase to 250-300 pounds a week this summer when I am participating in farmers markets,” she commented. The general kitchen is also used by caterers, food truck operators, bakers, and those needing a dry filling machine for items such as granola, spice rubs and snack mixes. The processing kitchen is used for anything that can be bottled or has a shelf life such as Gertie’s Premium BBQ Sauces, Magic Wok sauces and Brickyard Brand Sloppy Joe Sauce. The Small Business Program is intended to be an incubator. “Our goal for our tenants is for them to graduate,” said Singer. “The tenants using NOCK are at all different levels. Some are just starting out, and some have grown substantially. Some go on to their own facility or process at a larger facility like Willy’s Salsa.”
The timeframe of moving from idea to production is also different for each business. “The fastest has been three months, an average is six to nine months, but it could be two years depending on the dedication. We have some people who see this as a hobby to people who quit their jobs and want to do this for real,” Singer commented. “It’s up to the individual on how much they want to achieve. Some businesses start with one product and end up with several versions.”
Participants in the Small Business Program also receive marketing assistance and are provided with networking opportunities. “We help them promote their businesses, and we give them contacts to those who can help create their logos and labels,” said Singer. CIFT hosts an annual food buyer’s show. “We invite anyone and everyone who might buy food. Participants get the opportunity to showcase and provide samples of their products,” she added. CIFT and the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation sponsor the Ohio Signature Food Contest. “We are currently taking applications for our Signature Food Contest. The winner receives technical assistance for free for one year and one production run,” Singer explained. Applications can be found at ciftinnovation.org/ohio-food-contest and are due by the end of May. Many of the products made at the NOCK can be found in local grocery stores including Sautter’s Food Center and Walt Churchill’s Markets. “We are very fortunate in northwest Ohio to have retailers who are so supportive of local foods. Usually that is the first stop for our producers,” said Singer. For those who have an idea for a food product, the NOCK can help. “We always tell people that establishing a food business is not like any other business. There are so many factors that come into play,” said Singer. “Being open to asking for help and advice and recognizing the unique attributes of owning a food business are important. If they can get their minds around that, and they have the passion and creativity, they can move it forward.”