2016-11-03 / Business News

Revving up

Culinary entrepreneurs gearing up to welcome Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee
BY AISLING SWIFT
Special to Florida Weekly


The Naples Accelerator at 3510 Kraft Road will house a retail operation for products made at the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee. 
COURTESY PHOTO The Naples Accelerator at 3510 Kraft Road will house a retail operation for products made at the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee. COURTESY PHOTO Collier County is reaching out to local farmers, chef entrepreneurs, juicers and others who want to take their product or recipe to the next level: a successful business.

To learn the needs of aspiring culinary entrepreneurs, county officials are asking them to take a short survey to help planners and builders design the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee, a stateof the-art kitchen, food processing and packing facility.

“The driving force behind this project is to mentor, train and support food entrepreneurs by leveraging Immokalee’s abundant fruit and vegetable resources,” says Jace Kentner, director of Collier County’s Office of Business & Economic Development. “The accelerator will diversify our economy by providing the facility and resources needed to accelerate food product companies.”

Immokalee, the second poorest municipality in Florida, was chosen as the location because it is Collier County’s agricultural center. It’s also part of a federal Promise Zone with Hendry and Glades counties, which gives Immokalee preferred access to federal grants for economic development, education and infrastructure. The high-poverty area is one of 22 Promise Zones in the country and the only one in Florida. Collier County also has been named a StrikeForce County, a USDA program that brings economic opportunities to high-poverty rural communities by helping leverage their assets.

Marshall Goodman, director of the county’s accelerators in Naples and Immokalee, calls Immokalee the perfect location due to its farm resources, small local food businesses and proximity to Naples — known for its healthy lifestyle, love of food and the growing locavore movement that favors locally grown and made products.

“I think the locavore movement would be well served by putting this facility at residents’ fingertips,” Mr. Goodman says. “We can keep the costs down and provide equipment and services that normally would be out of the reach of a startup company.”

Late last month, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, flew to Immokalee Regional Airport to meet with Mr. Goodman and county leaders and learn about the accelerator. Days earlier, celebrity chef Art Smith met with the culinary accelerator team to discuss a partnership that includes his holding a fundraising dinner, mentoring participating chef entrepreneurs and selling his famous fried chicken sandwich at the accelerator’s retail store, Woodstock’s.

Through a partnership between the county and local nonprofit Economic Incubators Inc., a 5,274-square-foot warehouse at Immokalee Regional Airport will be transformed into the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee. It will offer an 18-month educational and mentorship program in addition to a food lab operated by the University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research & Education Center. Groundbreaking is expected in December, with opening targeted for summer 2017.

The accelerator will be designed for use by farmers and cooperatives, startup food companies and home-kitchen entrepreneurs. It will also be available to midsize food companies, retail and food service companies and commercial users. The county will offer scholarships, a variety of classes, food testing, certification training and workshops with local chefs.

To help businesses expand to the next level of distribution, Woodstock’s will provide space at the Naples Accelerator (off Pine Ridge Road at 3510 Kraft Road) for chef entrepreneurs to sell their products to the public.

Danny Gonzalez, who manages Immokalee’s popular Lozano’s Mexican Restaurant with his wife, Sandy, plans to expand the restaurant and salsa business by becoming the first tenant of the new Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee. The restaurant sources its produce from the Immokalee State Farmers Market, with tomatoes coming from farms in Immokalee, Ruskin and Palmetto nine months of the year.

“I’m excited,” says Mr. Gonzalez, who also is president of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce. “We want to push our sales when the snowbird season gets here. We get tons of customers. They buy salsa by the gallon and want to take it home. We just run out. We have to turn people away.”

The founders of Naples-based Joyful Juicing, Hannah Peterson and Nicolas Fina, jump-started the culinary program by joining the Naples Accelerator in August so they could work on new products. Their national food and beverage consulting company, Modiv, focuses on emerging and established brands that want to bring innovative natural products to market.

The couple moved their juicing operation to Miami, but in the past, when production was in Naples, they sourced from Inyoni Organic Farm as well as from Food & Thought. Due to the seasonality in Florida in the summer months, Ms. Peterson says, they source produce nationwide, but buy a lot of produce from local farms in the winter.

“We see this as the perfect bridge and a great way to build up momentum here in town,” Ms. Peterson says. “With the rise in the natural food and beverage industry, and consumer trends reporting the demand in craft local products, we truly feel that having access to a versatile facility such as the Immokalee accelerator will bring a lot of that business to Collier County.

“We are excited about the project and all of the growth it will provide to small local businesses,” she adds.

The accelerator will offer shared-use food processing space for a broad array of hot and cold products, as well as administrative office space for staff and clients. Future phases will include an alcohol-distillation machine and an HPP machine — a cold, high-pressure process that keeps foods, juices and beverages fresher and safer longer. In addition to food businesses, the leftover food waste and fiber from the HPP machine creates another possible business venue, transforming that waste into an environmentally friendly compost.

The accelerator is being designed to meet federal regulatory standards (FDA and USDA) as well as local and state regulations.

This spring, the Florida Legislature appropriated $1.75 million for the Collier County’s business and culinary accelerators in Naples and Immokalee. The county also received a $112,536 USDA grant this year and a $1 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant last month. In addition, the county is applying for $160,000 in grant money under the Promise Zone to purchase two food trucks for the accelerator and $2.25 million in funding for 20 three-year scholarships for chef participants.

So far, 28 chef entrepreneurs have taken the county survey, including those who make Kombucha, gluten-free, paleo and raw foods, salsa and brisket.

“I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere,” says Collier County Commissioner Tim Nance, whose district includes Immokalee. “It’s going to be great for people who want to get into fresh foods and food production. It’s going to give them everything they need. And it’s going to be a wonderful synergy between the Collier County economic development office and the University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research & Education Center.”

For more information, email: info@ NaplesAccelerator.com.

To complete the survey, which is available in English, Spanish and Creole, please visit: www.surveymonkey.com/r/FloridaCulinaryAcceleratorEnglish www.surveymonkey.com/r/CulinaryAcceleratorSpanish www.surveymonkey.com/r/CulinaryAcceleratorCreole. ¦

— Aisling Swift is the executive coordinator for the Collier County Office of Business and Economic Development.

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