UNIVERSITY PARK - Peach salsa, gourmet jam, gluten-free snacks -- these are just a few of the locally made foods consumers can find throughout Pennsylvania, thanks to food entrepreneurs who put their ideas into action.
The commonwealth is fortunate to have an abundance of these entrepreneurs, and Penn State Extension helps equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their food business.
Extension's Food for Profit program, in operation for more than 20 years, has experienced a renaissance recently, thanks to rising consumer interest in local and specialty foods. "People want to know where their food comes from," said Winifred McGee, senior extension educator in agricultural entrepreneurship. "There's a demand for local products, and Food for Profit educates those who are meeting that demand -- people who have a food business or are considering starting a food enterprise."
Food for Profit is a one-day workshop that covers many aspects of operating a food business, including feasibility and profitability assessment, food safety, risk management, insurance, proactive food recall plans, marketing strategies, and packaging and labeling. Participants learn about important regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), enacted in 2011, and requirements for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification.
"We also have a sanitarian from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture give an overview of registration requirements for any type of food-based endeavor, whether it's retail, wholesale or home based," McGee said. "Often, someone from the local Small Business Development Center will stop in and talk about what they do, so participants can get further guidance on what goes into running a small, food-related business."
Food for Profit workshops are interactive, giving participants plenty of opportunity to share ideas and ask questions. Usually, about a third of the audience is comprised of would-be food entrepreneurs who are considering a business venture, and the other two thirds are those who are operating a food business.
"It is a jam-packed day," McGee said. "The audience gets lots of information, and they have a chance to 'try it on' to see how it fits with their goals. Sometimes, they'll leave with a different idea than the one they came in with. They might find out during the workshop that their original idea isn't legally or financially possible but that they could try something else."
This realistic approach helps save some prospective food entrepreneurs money, time and headaches. For example, some workshop participants leave early in the day when they learn they cannot legally make a food product in their home and sell it if they have a pet. Or they might have to face some hard questions about their idea.
"Often, you have to ask the question, Does the world need your salsa?" said Jeff Hyde, Penn State Extension program leader for agricultural entrepreneurship and economic and community development. "If you're going to Food for Profit and you have a salsa idea, what's really going to make your product stand out from the crowd?"
Added McGee, "The important thing is that people leave knowing what they need to do. Sometimes it's more research and acquiring more information about getting a food business up and running.
"We equip them to move on in starting or expanding a food business. And we continue to revise and improve our workshops based on discussions that take place and the questions and feedback we get. We work hard to stay relevant."
Participants in Food for Profit workshops represent a wide range of food ventures, from direct sales to restaurants to catering businesses. Interestingly, food trucks are a growing segment of food entrepreneurship. "We've seen a food truck phenomenon particularly in areas where there's Marcellus Shale activity," McGee says. "Food trucks appeal to crews -- a lot of them are staying in hotels, and it's a convenient way for them to grab a meal on the go."
Also making up a large portion of the Food for Profit audience are farmers interested in extending their selling season and adding value to their crops by producing jams, jellies, sauces or salsas.
According to Hyde, a combination of factors is driving the resurging interest in Food for Profit. "In Pennsylvania we have a consumer base that is interested in food trends and wants high-end food products," he said. "Location is another driving factor. Being on the East Coast, we have access within a day's drive to millions of people who meet this demographic in cities such as Boston, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. We have major markets available to us, and the location and timing is right for educating food entrepreneurs."
Over the past five years, more than 1,000 food entrepreneurs have completed Food for Profit workshops. "That demonstrates that there is great interest across Pennsylvania in starting food-related businesses, and shows that Extension can help people be successful in their individual enterprises," Hyde said.