- Associated Press - Monday, March 9, 2015

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - A public kitchen in Fayetteville has allowed a group of food entrepreneurs to start businesses while spurring demand for a similar facility in central Arkansas.

Arkansas’ cottage law ensures that the smallest food processors can legally sell their products at farmers markets. But when processors want to scale up and sell in local grocery stores, they have to follow packaging laws and make the food in an inspected kitchen.

That’s where the Arkansas Food Innovation Center in Fayetteville comes into play, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1BIN4mf ) reports.

“There’s a million and one hoops to jump through and no one hoop is particularly difficult, but they’re all unfamiliar and they’re all made for the big guys,” said Cat Swenson, co-owner of Winslow-based Great Fermentations. “(The center) has helped guide us and getting our questions answered here has made all the difference.”

Swenson and her husband make fermented kraut and jalapeno slices at the center, which provides commercial equipment, a health department-inspected work space and assistance meeting food standards and labeling laws.

The space is meant as an incubator for people who want to see if their product can be successful at a local level, said Renee Threlfall, a research scientist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Threlfall has been running a workshop series at the center that’s part conference, part support group and part competition. Of the 25 people who attended the last workshop, a handful will be chosen to receive access to two interns, free use of the space and some assistance with packaging costs.

“These workshops allow us to show the community more of what we can do,” she said.

About half the attendees at the last workshop were from outside Northwest Arkansas. That demand doesn’t surprise state Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock.

This week stakeholders are meeting to start planning a regional food innovation center in central Arkansas that will have inspected kitchen space, resources for packaging and labeling and expert assistance — much like the center in Fayetteville.

Sabin hopes to have the center operational next year.

“We’re just doing for food and agriculture what we’ve already done in these other fields that we’re already working in,” Sabin said. “It seems crazy if we’re already trying to stimulate technology entrepreneurship, why wouldn’t we try to do that in agriculture?”

Threlfall said that strategy works at the food innovation center in Fayetteville, which has been essential to launching businesses in the area.

So far, the biggest company to come out of the center is Fayetteville-based Oh Baby Foods, which sells organic, non-GMO (nongenetically modified organism) baby food at stores across the country.

Smaller businesses are thriving, too. Many entrepreneurs that come to the center start with a family recipe or a passion for a certain food they want to share.

Great Fermentations is selling in Ozark Natural Foods, at farmers markets and is in discussions with other natural foods stores in Northwest Arkansas.

The vegetables in Swenson’s glass jars are fermented in brine and contain probiotics and prebiotics, she said. She markets them as a healthful alternative to most modern pickled products, which are packed in vinegar and don’t contain any bacteria — even the helpful kind.

“We’d like to be kraut kingpins of the United States, but that’s a long-term goal,” Swenson said. “I have to say, I really didn’t imagine we would be doing so well so quickly.”

Farmhouse Cupboard, another company that was started in the center, is on the verge of moving out. Founder Meredith de Vera said the company’s cookies started out as a family recipe that her dad made and sold in Kansas for almost 20 years.

She started making those cookies in the center a year ago and they’re now being sold at the cafe at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“We could be doing a lot more,” she said. “We’re trying to walk before we run.”

De Vera wants to increase operations and provide cookies for many more cafes. She said her product can be frozen for up to a year, thawed as needed and still tastes fresh — perfect for coffee shops that want to sell a handful of cookies a day, but don’t want to waste any products.

She’s looking for a co-packer — a company that manufactures food for a client — so the business can make and sell more cookies.

“I think the hardest thing is just being organized,” she said. “When you have a small food company, you’ve got so many balls in the air. You’re the marketing department. You’re the baker. You’re the packager.”

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