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Prospective tenants learn about Food Incubator services

With a number of its tenants now selling products to major stores and distributors, the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator continues to draw interest among people looking to launch their own food enterprises.
With a number of its tenants now selling products to major stores and distributors, the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator continues to draw interest among people looking to launch their own food enterprises.

The incubator provides tenants kitchen space, processing equipment and assistance from AgCenter marketing and food science experts.

Getting started in the food business is not easy, according to Food Incubator director Gaye Sandoz. While the incubator can help them navigate the process, potential tenants should be prepared to fill out lots of paperwork, demonstrate products in stores on weekends and, in short, work hard.

Sandoz said, "Having a great product is one thing, but you have to treat this as a job. It's difficult to run your own business. The incubator can help you get started."

For many tenants, a tangible product empowers them to share things that are special to them, like a healthy lifestyle, Louisiana culture or family traditions.

Richard Hanley of Hanley's Foods is one of the incubator's original tenants. Three years ago, Hanley decided to stop eating fast food and realized he liked salad, so he began experimenting with dressing recipes. After many messy test runs in their home kitchen, he and his wife eventually came up with a tasty result Hanley's Sensation Salad Dressing.

The incubator helped Hanley with marketing, and today his product is sold in stores in five states.

Hanley said, "None of this would be possible without the Food Incubator.  I had an idea, but now I have an actual product that I'm proud of and can stand by."

On the route from idea to product, most recipes must be altered to ensure they are shelf stable and safe.

Food scientist Luis Espinoza helps tenants make necessary changes while preserving color, texture and taste. The process takes time and patience, Espinoza said, but tenants benefit by learning more about the science behind their product.

After formulating a safe but still delicious product, tenants must figure out how to sell it.  Sandoz pointed out that you have to have a profit or else it's just a hobby and an expensive one.

Tenants are required to complete a business plan with help from the Louisiana Business and Technology Center at LSU's Innovation Park. Charlie D'Agostino, LBTC executive director, said planning is key as tenants grow into a "real business" and face decisions such as how to price products and whether to form an LLC or a corporation.

Latham Alexander, owner of Alexander's Highland Market in Baton Rouge, said he likes stocking his shelves with local products because they tend to be fresher and often come with an interesting, moving backstory. He encourages people who sell in Alexander's to do demos because he knows it is critical to their success.

Alexander said, "If you're not willing to spend your Saturdays and Sundays demoing your product, there's a problem.  You need to stand out there and tell your story to customers face to face because you can tell that story best."

Selling a product in a store also means planning for replenishment, Alexander said. While hiccups in production are sometimes unavoidable, food businesses should produce a steady supply or else customers and store owners become frustrated by empty spots on shelves.

Clearing such hurdles can be scary for rookie food entrepreneurs, but AgCenter vice chancellor John Russin assured attendees they would be in good hands with the incubator.

Russin said, "This is not only a kitchen you can rent.  You tap into marketing expertise and Ph.D. food scientists who know food like the inside of their pockets and can help you with all of the challenges that you're going to face as you develop your product and put together your company. This is available no place else in Louisiana."

The incubator has grown significantly since its official opening about one year ago and plans for further expansion are in the works.
Prospective tenants must complete an application and give a presentation on their product idea. Those who make the cut must develop a business plan. After that, a tenant lease is signed and work in the incubator can begin.

More information on how to join is available at http://www.lsuagcenter.com/en/our_offices/departments/food_science/extension_outreach/incubator.

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