- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) - Christopher Bances made a quick count. About a dozen jars and bottles of condiments that he and other Immokalee High School students created were sold at the Winn-Dixie store in Immokalee during the first week they were offered there.

Bances, 18, is in charge of restocking the shelf that displays the fire roasted tomato and jalapeño salsas, and the bottles of four hot and barbecue sauces, all priced between $3.99 and $5.99.

Bances, a high school senior and board president of the company called Taste of Immokalee, thinks it’s important to have their products for sale in their hometown.

“We want to raise awareness in the community,” he said. “We want to set an example for the students.”

Two years after a group of 16 students from the high school, mentored by One by One Foundation, started to develop food products inspired by the flavors of Immokalee, the project is taking off.

In their homes and at the Immokalee Technical Center’s kitchen, the students played with recipes their families use. They also designed every detail of the final product, from the brand logo to the label, and promoted the food line by starting a business to commercialize it.

By now, they have sold $21,000 worth of products, and the orders are increasing. One of their sauces will be offered at Collier County schools and their products have reached 14 locations in Collier County, including the Winn-Dixie Immokalee store.

“It means a lot to have the products in Immokalee,” said Kayla Boney, a 16-year-old Immokalee High student. “It means a lot for the students that our work is seen here.”

The group is also negotiating with Publix, Bances said. The chain is interested in offering their products in about 50 stores, but they haven’t found a good distributor with a price that will leave them a worthy profit, he said.

The students currently get their products manufactured by Sarasota-based Best Brand Bottlers firm, but their goal is to grow enough to invest in a bottling plant and manufacture their products in Immokalee, giving jobs to local residents. Their plan is to distribute the company’s profits in scholarships for Immokalee students, Bances said. He said some nonprofits are doing a good job in Immokalee providing scholarships, but they want to generate an independent, sustainable source of funding.

“We want to create something self-sustaining, a company, so that they don’t have to look for donors,” he said.

Boney, who joined the project in June and negotiated directly with Winn-Dixie, said that Immokalee students, those who grew up in town, are the ones trying to help their own community.

“It’s Immokalee helping itself for a brighter future,” she said.

She said being in a store in Immokalee has been one of their most difficult challenges.

“It was a great feeling,” she said about getting their products in Winn-Dixie. “So many people in town go there. This is putting us out there even more.”

Winn-Dixie’s Immokalee store manager, Mark Litteral, said the supermarket wanted to help the students with their project, and it’s working.

“They are selling very well,” he said.

Some of the students who started the project are now in college, out of town, but they remain involved in Taste of Immokalee, Bances said.

The core group, Bances said, was reduced to eight students, but is welcoming now 24 new Immokalee High School students who signed up to be part of the project.

And they are creating two part-time jobs, he said. They hired a couple of drivers to take them to promotions in Naples on Saturdays.

The business, started with the help of an $84,000 grant from State Farm Insurance, hasn’t yet made a profit, said Bances.

They incorporated their company a year ago, at about the same time they received the first order from a store, Wynn’s Market.

The store offers all their products, said Larry Landberg, one of the store managers. The fire roasted tomato and jalapeño salsa is the product that is doing best, he said. The sales of the other products have been slower, Landberg said.

Bances said they have already replaced some barbecue sauces with salsa at the shelves of the Wynn’s store. They created the hot and the barbecue sauces after the salsa to give more options to people who thought their salsa was either too spicy or too mild, he said. But they are seeing, he said, that while their salsa is very original, the competition in the sector of barbecue sauces is tougher. If it doesn’t work, they may discontinue it.

Still, Bances expects the company will grow, as clients get to know their brand and become aware of their goals.

“Hopefully by the second year we can make profit,” he said.

He said if the products do well in Immokalee, Winn Dixie will think about taking them to other stores like the one in Golden Gate, or in Fort Myers.

Collier County School District has already made an order for the serrano chili hot sauce to offer it in all 50 of its schools.

Dawn Houser, director of Nutrition Services for Collier County schools, said they tasted Taste of Immokalee products in a vendor showcase and liked the serrano chili hot sauce the best.

“We felt our students would enjoy having this new condiment, and we also wanted to support the product and the business created by the students in Immokalee,” he said.

Houser said that they also intend to try some new recipes using the product, and will start to offer them when their food distributor, GFS, and the schools have it in stock.

Supplying the product ordered is taking a few weeks, Bances said.

“They placed a huge order,” he said. “We don’t have the stock at the time.”

He said the sauce, made with serrano pepper, onion, fresh garlic and ginger, was based on a Mexican recipe.

“That’s something we enjoy at home,” he said.

Bances, who wants to study business administration or marketing, said the project has been a good experience. He came from Guatemala at age 7 with her mother, who started to work at his aunt’s food truck. He helped sometimes. Now, he is the entrepreneur.

“This is my first time seeing how a business works,” he said.

Boney, who is in charge of planning the group’s participation in promotional events, said she has learned a lot, including overcoming her shyness and doing business with other company owners or employees.

“I wouldn’t have an opportunity like this anywhere else,” she said.

Boney, who is starting dual enrollment in 11th grade next semester, wants to open her own practice as a dentist in the future. She thinks the project is a good opportunity for young students.

“Many students are kept in the shell of Immokalee, and it’s great to take them out,” she said. “There’s another world out there.”

___

Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, https://www.naplesnews.com

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