By Claire Salinas
Sara Vincent always made her signature salad dressing in her kitchen and stored it in beer bottles until her good friend, Kristen Bateman, convinced her it was time to put it in a real bottle and join the Food Incubator.
“We went from making one 12 ounce bottle at time to 100 gallons at a time,” said Vincent. “We’re in about 50 stores currently. We just got picked up by A.G. and will be distributed to about 75 other stores as well as to Baton Rouge and New Orleans Whole Foods.”
The LSU AgCenter Food Incubator is working with locals like Bateman to take their products from the dish they make for family barbeques to store ready.
Linda and James McAdams were both struggling with unemployment, but once they jumped on board at the incubator with a business idea for Truly Scrumptious Candies and Confections, things were only uphill from there.
“My husband is actually a paraplegic, he had a really bad battle with pneumonia about four years ago and has been on unemployment ever since,” Linda said. “I kept getting turned down and getting no responses for jobs. Then I started thinking ‘This is the answer to what we’re facing.’ We kept hearing the phrase ‘Leap of faith,’ from different people. My sister said she was in and we were in so we started it. We have already done some product testing in local grocery stores.”
Director of the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator Gaye Sandoz relishes in working at a place that is so interested in seeing local businesses succeed.
“They have commercial kitchens you can rent, but LSU AgCenter Food Incubator has become a food innovation center. It’s a very fulfilling job to see someone succeed. I love the spirit behind the local movement.”
One thing that sets the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator apart from others is the food scientist on staff. Luis Espinoza holds a Ph.D. in food science and enjoys working with clients to manipulate the ingredients in their products to achieve the perfect taste and look.
“The initial approach is to work one on one with the client,” Dr. Espinoza said. “The client is the entity who really knows the product’s flavor and texture profiles. I provide tentative formulations based on the initial profile and desired goals. A three-person panel tastes the alternatives and compares them to a control before presenting to the client. If the client wants validation using the Food Incubator, we turn to The LSU Food Science and Nutrition Department. They have a state-of-the-art sensory laboratory. Depending on the client’s needs, they can run simple discriminatory tests, consumer preference tests or focus groups.”
The Food Incubator provides guidance throughout the entire process of getting a product store ready.
James McAdams explained, “They help you along and tell you, ‘This is what you need.’ They’re out there to help these businesses get going and become successful.”
Vincent and Bateman knew they couldn’t mix garlic into her dressing the same way she had always done it if she wanted her dressing to look appealing on the shelf, but they were committed to keeping the ingredients all natural. The incubator helped them solve both problems.
“The biggest change we made was our salad dressing uses fresh garlic but we wanted to keep it all natural. They taught us to go into the kitchen the day before, grind the garlic, soak it in vinegar for 24 hours and then use it in the dressing.”
Linda McAdams recounts how the Food Incubator helped Truly Scrumptious Candies and Confections get through several important food certification hoops a lot more easily then they could’ve ever got through on their own.
“We got our permit for the Department of Health and Hospitals and it only took us about two weeks to make it happen. Also when we went to apply for our liability insurance the first couple places we checked at were really high. My sister mentioned that we were doing this through the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator and they emailed back saying, ‘The food incubator has such great credibility that we are going to lower your rate.’”
Sandoz explained that although tenants and staff members alike make work at the Food Incubator look effortless, success takes a lot of work behind the scenes.
“It’s very challenging starting a food incubator because it’s new and you’re assisting others to start companies. The ones who succeed are the ones who treat it as a job and not just a hobby.”
For those who do put the work in the results are often very sweet.
“Kristen and I went back and forth so much on email that the name of the dressing became the subject line RE: salad dressing and marinade,” said Vincent. “We first got in stores in December of last year. We’re doing everything from mixing the ingredients to bottling the dressing, to labeling and going to the stores to talk to them and stocking their shelves.”
James McAdams feels the Food Incubator has not been the only one to offer their assistance throughout the process of getting their product store ready.
“Every single tenant we have met in that incubator has offered their support and said, ‘I’ve been where you are.’ It’s kind of like a brotherhood because we all, at some point, have been where the other person is now.”