2012-04-30

Co.Exist

There's Gold In Them Pickles: An Incubator Teaches Foodies How To Monetize Fermentation

It seems like everyone is starting a little artisinal food company in their kitchen these days. Most of them will fail. But a new institute in the Bay Area (where else?) is trying to add a little business acumen to would-be food entrepreneurs’ recipes, in the hopes of growing a more robust local food system.

Image by Laurel Stewart

It may be true, as the main characters in Portlandia say, that you can pickle almost anything. But creating a viable business out of it? That’s not as simple. Sure, there are classes you can take, but in the U.S., there is no larger educational program to teach people interested in food craft--the art of turning raw ingredients into long-lasting products like krauts and jams--how to make it in business. That’s bad news for local food entrepreneurs.

Anya Fernald, the founder of the just-opened Food Craft Institute (FCI) in Oakland, Calif., is trying to create a pathway for these would-be food artisans with a series of 12-week (one day a week) courses with titles like "Jams, Marmalades and Chutneys" and "Pickles, Krauts and Ferments," as well as two-day intensive "black belt" courses for more experienced participants and business intensive courses for small to mid-scale entrepreneurs.

Before developing the Food Craft Institute, Fernald spent five years with the Slow Food Foundation in Italy and launched the popular Eat Real Festival for local street food, which now serves as the fundraiser for the Food Craft Institute. Fernald is also a food entrepreneur herself; she is the founder of Belcampo Meats, which aims to shepherd pasture-raised meats from its farm to its own California slaughterhouse, and then to its retail locations in the Bay Area.

"In Italy, there’s a respected pathway where people can be foodmakers," explains Fernald. "You can learn to be a chef in every community college, but there’s no pathway [in the U.S.] for food artisans." Ideally, the more food artisans we have, the more people will appreciate their local food makers and think twice about buying industrially made products (even though the industrial products will always hold some appeal because of their generally lower price point).

I attended the first session of FCI’s very first class: an introduction to the $2,750 "Jams, Marmalades and Chutneys" course. The group was small (less than 15 people) and mostly female. But it was diverse in professional background; these were not just idealistic, upper-middle-class twentysomethings. One participant worked in the wine industry before deciding to bring his Lebanese family’s jam recipes to market. A food services worker joined the course because she wants to do something for herself in the kitchen. Another participant already has a working 350-acre farm and a business selling apple sauce and apple juice, but wants to expand into jams.

The highlight of the day (for me, at least) was a jam tasting, where we blindly sampled orange-based jams from around the world and rated them on a number of factors, including flavor, mouth feel, spreadability, and color. Unsurprisingly, the local handmade jams were tastier than the larger industrial-made versions (though some people did like the IKEA jam). My favorite: June Taylor’s Clementine Marmalade. Taylor is a successful jam entrepreneur in the Bay Area.

Image by Laurel Stewart

FCI isn’t sugar-coating the challenges of starting a small business. At the end of the first day, a self-proclaimed failed food entrepreneur (Jill Epner of Little City Kitchen) warned the participants of where they could go wrong. "People who have been successful for years get to the point where they will fold or bail because they get so exhausted," says Fernald. "If we can find a way to professionalize and provide support for slow-food artisans, that would be a huge service."

The first day was spent entirely inside FCI’s headquarters, but future classes will see participants take treks all over the Bay Area, from a tour of the Smuckers Natural Foods manufacturing facility (for a glimpse of the industrial machine) to a cooking basics class at local jam company Blue Chair Fruit. The final two days of the class will be spent in a business bootcamp.

Right now, the institute is focusing on its classes. But ultimately, Fernald hopes that FCI will be able to gather key metrics for entrepreneurs in the space. How many years does it take to become profitable? What are acceptable operating margins? And who knows, maybe five years down the line FCI will have a burgeoning alumni network of entrepreneurs willing to help each other.

The next course--Pickles, Krauts and Ferments--begins July 28th.

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