Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Local Food Business is Big Business in Pennsylvania

by Winifred McGee, Extension Educator, Dauphin County

Over the past couple of years, we've seen a dramatic rise in the number of people who come to the Penn State Extension's Food for Profit workshop.  During this one-day, jam-packed session (pun fully intended), we instructors endeavor to provide the basics in what a person would need to learn, and know, to start a food business.  We provide opportunity for the participants to learn about sanitation, regulation, and inspections from the inspectors - be it municipal health officials or sanitarians from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Food Safety.  The ability to meet these individuals - who fast become the "entrepreneur's first and best friend" - advising them what to do, and not do, to get their business started is often worth the class fee alone.  We also provide the opportunity to discuss food safety practices, niche marketing, social media, effective packaging and labeling, and money matters - financing and pricing - throughout the day.

A Food for Profit participant presents a unique marketing idea
for her activity group's assigned product: a barbecue sauce.
Between September 2012 and June 2013, we've had 219 people attend 11 workshops - 10 in Pennsylvania, one in Maryland - who joined the ranks of the previous 443 course graduates to bring the class participants to 661 since November 2010.  These folks are of all ages (20-somethings through senior citizens) from all walks of life - looking at the potential to turn their food idea into a venture for "extra money," or to full-time employment.  The participants of Food for Profit are not alone, or unusual, in their search for self-employment.  In this book, "To Sell is Human," Danial H. Pink asserts that "the last decade has also witnessed a substantial increase in very small enterprises - not only those that offer products, but one- or two- person outfits that sell services, creativity, and expertise."  Pink supports this statement by referencing:
  • U.S. Census Bureau estimates of twenty-one million "non-employer" businesses - operations without any paid employees...the majority of businesses in the United States.
  • The research firm IDC statistics - 30% of American workers now work on their own and that by 2015, this number will reach 1.3 billion.
  • Some analysts' projections that U.S. independent entrepreneurs may grow by sixty-five million and could become a majority of the American workforce by 2020.
  • Pink's own "What Do You Do at Work?" survey, which asked "Do you work for yourself or run your own business, even on the side?"  Thirty-eight percent of respondents answered "yes."
A little pickle can be the start to "big business"
To illustrate entrepreneurship, Pink profiles the Brooklyn Brine Company - started by disenchanted chef, Shamus Jones, who turned his "hobby" of pickling seasonal vegetables into a full-time business.  Similar to the Food for Profit graduates with whom I've worked, Jones started down the road to self-employment by experimenting with pickle recipes in a "borrowed" commercial kitchen from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., honing the recipes that resulted in Brooklyn Brine opening its doors in 2009.  Now selling a range of products from the standard NYC Deli Pickles to the exotic Lavender Asparagus, jars of Brooklyn Brine are found on shelves of high-end food-shops literally around the world.  Also, like most Food for Profit graduates, Jones has ended up wearing many hats - being the "face" of the company - time meeting distributors, telling the company's story and convincing more stores to stock his products.  He also has sales tasks when he gets back to his production floor - influencing his employees so that they are "stoked to come into work."  This is a combination of traditional selling and non-sales selling that Pink calls "moving."  Pink defines this activity (which he asserts that a majority of us do) as "moving other people to part with resources - whether something tangible like cash or intangible like effort or attention - so that we both get what we want."  A subset of all the "moving" is, indeed, accomplished by successful food entrepreneurs.

Local food enterprises are big business - even when the operations are small.  The consumer demand and entrepreneurs' vision result in not only a variety of products on our tables, but a more energized local economy.  It is exciting to me personally to see the would-be food business owners come to Food for Profit.  I know their enterprises will not all experience the type of success that Brooklyn Brine had, but I know that many of them will work just as hard as Jones did, to see vision become a reality.  Penn State Extension provides our support by doing the "scavenger hunt" - collecting the information from various sources about how to launch a legal, marketable, profitable product and packaging it in a one day event - but the energy and enthusiasm has to come from within the entrepreneur, him- or her-self.  This is the essence of the American Dream; building a way to support one's household while having a great deal of fun.  And, hopefully, the food entrepreneurs will spread the fun on to their employees, customers, and communities.

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