COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Lea Richards first stepped into the pilot food processing plant of Ohio State University's Food Industries Center, she was taken aback.
"I was really amazed at the breadth of equipment that you have under one roof," said Richards, owner and operator of Pig of the Month BBQ. "There's all kinds of kettles, fryers, canning equipment, ovens for baking, a huge popcorn popper.
"It's a great way to get your feet wet if you're just starting out in the business, before you spend a ton of money."
The pilot plant Richards used when starting her business is one of two such plants in The Wilbur A. Gould Food Industries Center, part of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
The center supports the food industry in a variety of ways, said Valente Alvarez, center director. Its facilities are available for entrepreneurs and established food companies that need a pilot-sized plant for processing, as well as professional development courses for food industry workers and managers, and government and academic personnel.
The center also offers both hands-on training for Ohio State students in food science and technology, Alvarez said.
Established in 1982, the center acts as a link between the university and the state's vast food industry, and its influence reaches well beyond Ohio's borders, said Alvarez, who also has a partial appointment with Ohio State University Extension.
According to Jobs Ohio, the state's food and beverage production plants employ more than 60,000 workers at 1,100 facilities, and in 2012, Ohio's food and beverage manufacturing industry shipped $24 billion in products.
Pilot Plants Foster Product Development
The center has two pilot plants. The dairy plant, housed in the Parker Food Science and Technology Building, is for teaching, research and product testing only; its license does not permit products made there to be sold. It processes milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and beverages.
Gary Wenneker, dairy plant supervisor, said companies often lease the plant so they can test new products or processes without having to shut down their own facilities to run a test batch.
"They can run something as small as a one-gallon batch size," Wenneker said. "They can try different percentages of sweeteners, different concentrations of stabilizers or emulsifiers, or we manipulate the homogenizer pressure to see how that will affect the viscosity or texture of homogenized products.
"They can test very small quantities and get finished results."
The food processing pilot plant, in the basement of neighboring Howlett Hall, has commercial licenses for bottling, canning, baking and frozen foods, allowing clients to process foods for sale.
Both pilot plants are used to support eight to 10 academic courses annually, reaching up to 500 students each year.
"It gives students hands-on training and experience that industry values a lot," Alvarez said.
The food processing pilot plant also assists an average of 10 to 12 new entrepreneurs like Lea Richards each year.
Paul Courtright, the food plant supervisor, works one-on-one with them.
"They might have a great barbecue sauce and want to put it on the market, but they have no clue how to get that done," Courtright said. "They know how to do it at home, but don't know how to make it so it's acceptable to sell commercially.
"So, we educate them first on all the do's and don'ts -- the regulations they have to follow -- before they even get started making their first bottle. Then I follow up with them, making sure they're keeping the records they need to keep and doing things properly. It's a constant, ongoing process."
The facility's equipment includes kettles, fryers, dryers, mixers, ovens, and canning and baking equipment. An extruder allows for the creation of breakfast cereals, cheese puffs and other snack foods. All of the equipment meets state and federal requirements for food processing. At the same time, he, Courtright and Wenneker, with the support of the center's advisory board members, are always looking for ways to upgrade facilities in both pilot plants, Alvarez said.
Food Industries Center Clients Taste Success
Among the pilot plant's early successes was Glory Foods, founded by the late Bill Williams, a certified chef and owner of the former Marble Gang Restaurant known for its soul food, and three partners, including Dan Charna.
"It started at Christmastime in 1988," Charna recalled during a recent visit to the Food Industries Center. "We were sitting around and I asked Bill what he was doing for Christmas. He said, 'I'm going to make a big pot of greens,' and I said 'What's that?' He described it and all the time and trouble it takes, and I thought, boy, there has to be an easier way to do all that."
Charna contacted Ohio State and soon found Winston Bash, who was then the center's director.
"We did all kinds of experimentation, from how many seeds per inch we put in the ground to get the most leaf, to different varieties, to cutting it differently," Charna said.
Different seasonings were tested at Williams' restaurant, with patrons' feedback helping the team refine the product.
By 1992, Glory Foods launched a line of pre-seasoned canned greens, peas and beans, and has since expanded its line to 85 products, now available at retailers nationwide. At each stage along the way, the company worked with the center to test new products.
"Those early days were so brutal," Charna said. "We didn't know how to do it, we didn't know how to cut them, we didn't know how to fill the cans."
Working with Bash, they finally got the process down, and in the early days made 7,000 cases of product in 20 days, Charna said.
The company soon outgrew the pilot plant and found a commercial facility to process its product, he said. "Now we do 20,000 cases in a day, every day."
Another success story is that of Sensus LLC.
Dan Wampler started his natural flavor, essence and extracts company by setting up shop in the pilot plant in 2000, where he tested new coffee- and tea-based product lines. The real advantage to using the center was speed, efficiency and access to all of the ancillary processing equipment necessary for pre-processing of raw materials, he said.
"Without the resources at Ohio State, entrepreneurs like me could easily be precluded from ever getting off the ground," Wampler said. "Instead of an investment of up to a quarter-million dollars just to test the feasibility of an idea, in three days, you can be up and running."
Sensus is now a division of Synergy Flavors, which expanded the company's technologies to a broader range of products and expanded its market reach globally. Wampler is now starting another company focusing on extracting health and wellness ingredients from natural products.
More recently, newly formed companies that have used the pilot plant to develop their products include:
Richards' Dayton-area company began steps toward commercializing its sauces and other products by using ACEnet's Food Manufacturing and Commercial Kitchen Facility in Athens, "but it was just so far away from us," Richards said.
She soon found the Food Industries Center and started processing there.
"There was a lot of trial and error," Richards said. "The recipes have to be exact. If you use 4 percent cider vinegar in one batch and 5 percent the next time, that changes everything. It probably took us 10 visits before we got everything the way we wanted."
Pig of the Month BBQ has graduated from the pilot plant to a larger facility and sells wholesale to restaurants and stores across the country, and also offers online sales through its website.
Ed Taylor is a native of Trinidad and was never satisfied with the hot sauce he could get in the United States after he immigrated in 1975. He and his wife, Liz, started making their own.
"It's hot," Liz Taylor said. "It's not your everyday hot sauce."
Friends and colleagues liked it so much they started buying it, "so we thought, let's see if we can take this further," she said.
They found the Food Industries Center through the Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI) in Columbus and still make and package their product at the center.
"We use the kettle, the filler, the chopper, the VCM (mixer), and Paul helps us testing the pH before we start putting it jars," Liz Taylor said.
"I would recommend the center to anyone who is just starting out. It was really eye-opening for us. We've seen the students there working with the equipment, and we've seen other people there making their products. We saw that other people who had used the pilot plant were so successful. It gave us a real incentive. If they can do it, so can we."
For years, Dr. Jim Kiourtsis, a retired orthodontist, made his father's recipe of caramelized peanuts for family gatherings.
"My late wife Elaine and I initially started the company to honor my dad, who brought the family recipe from Greece to the United States in 1918," he said.
They formed their company in 2008 and had to find a larger manufacturer by 2009.
"It's a real art," he said. "You can't just dump ingredients in a kettle, mix everything together and hope it comes out true to the recipe.
“You have to know when to cut the heat just at the right time, before you burn the product. The center allowed us to experiment and develop the recipe for commercial production, and gave us the opportunity to develop a first-rate product."
Elaine Kiourtsis died in late 2012, and Kiourtsis and his daughter Lori "are continuing the business not only in my dad's memory, but also Elaine's," he said.
Honeyman Gourmet Products
Treva "Tee" Northington's father used to barbecue every weekend.
"As a child I hated it -- we were like soux chefs, we had to wake up early and help him."
But as an adult, she realized her father's homemade barbecue sauce was something special.
When colleagues at work said they wanted to buy it from her, "I said, 'I guess we have a business.'"
Her father, nicknamed "Honeyman" in his golden-gloves boxing days, died in 1995. But Northington started developing mild and hot barbecue sauces, seasoned salt, a pork rub and a garlic-parmesan-romano seasoning mix, selling Honeyman Gourmet Products at local stores, food shows and at the Granville Farmers Market every Saturday from May through October.
Like the Taylors, she still uses the Food Industries Center to make her product.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for people who are just starting out," she said. "If you're lucky enough to know what you want and how to prepare it, they'll give you all of the help you need. It's like you're a part of the family. They're very interested in what you're doing, and they want you to succeed."
Unlike many of the entrepreneurs who use the Food Industries Center, Robin Coffey and Susan Neiswander had a combined 30 years of experience in the food industry before starting their own business.
"Susan knew about the Food Industries Center, so we naturally used it when we were starting out," Coffey said.
Taste Weavers, which produces dips, condiments, jams and preserves, grilling sauces, and salsas, outgrew the pilot plant within about six months.
"We picked up a few national accounts and went from shipping a case to shipping a pallet," Coffey said.
"The two best things we did when we started out was to join Ohio Proud and to work with the folks at the (Food Industries Center's) pilot plant," Coffey said. "To have access to a facility like that when you're starting out is invaluable, and working with the staff was so helpful in getting us started."
Jackie Chapman, a native of South Carolina, wanted to bring a refreshing taste of the South to Ohio, and developed a recipe based on her family's authentic, Southern-style sweet tea. She started selling it in cups at Columbus' Pearl Alley Farmers Market, but needed to find a way to process and bottle her sweet tea after the health department told her she couldn’t sell it in cups individually.
Chapman got some guidance from ECDI, where someone suggested she contact Cornell University to develop an approved process for bottling the tea. Then she found the Food Industries Center, took Cornell's recommendations with her, and worked with Courtright to make her product. Now she contracts with a local production facility, producing 20,400 bottles of tea at once.
"I would strongly encourage anyone who has an idea to work with the Food Industries Center," Chapman said. "You see the students, the other entrepreneurs -- you see big people there and little people like me, and all of us are trying to make our dreams come true. I'm so grateful to Ohio State for showing me the way, because if it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Pegge Hein Bellamy of Dayton started making salsa in 1998, refining recipes over the years. When she felt it was time to make it into a business, she asked someone at a farmers market where he bottled his mustard.
"He told me there are incubator kitchens in Ohio, and that's how I found out about Ohio State. I ended up producing there eight times" before she needed to find a bigger facility.
"I recommend anyone starting a food or beverage business to first go to the Food Industries Center," Bellamy said. "You learn so much.
“The biggest thing for me was learning that when you go from making salsa in a gallon kettle in my house, when you take the recipe to 60 gallons, everything changes. You have to make adjustments. I found that out the hard way during my first production, and I realized, if I was trying to do this with 500 gallons, that would have been a 500-gallon mistake."
The best thing about the pilot plant is that a small business can start up "without investing hundreds of thousands of dollars up front," Bellamy said. "You can start out really small. And I'll definitely use the pilot plant again if I develop a new product."
Food Industry Goes Back to School
Although the entrepreneurs coming through the pilot plant capture the imagination, Alvarez is quick to point out that the Food Industries Center offers much more.
"People come from all over the nation, and even internationally, for the courses and training we offer," he said.
The courses, which draw about 300 professionals every year, include the two-day Better Process Control School for Acidified Food Only; the four-day Total Quality Management course, geared to the snack food industry; the two-day HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) food safety training program; and the four-day Better Process Control School (for processors of low-acid or acidified foods).
The Better Process Control School has a long history at Ohio State, Alvarez said. It started in 1948 as a pilot program sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration, establishing the groundwork for certified training programs now required for food processors nationwide.
Now, the center also offers the training periodically in Spanish. Its most recent offering drew participants from the U.S., Latin America and Spain, Alvarez said.
The Food Industries Center also offers many of its courses onsite at a company's location, allowing a course to be customoized to a company's specific operation and train a larger group of employees. In 2012, the center traveled to five companies to offer onsite training.
In addition, the center offers a two-day Advanced Clean-in-Place course for the food and dairy industries. Clean-in-Place systems allow manufacturers to thoroughly clean their equipment without taking it completely apart. The technology was developed in large part by Ohio State alumnus Dale Seiberling, who Alvarez called a "pioneer in this technology, which is now used worldwide."
Seiberling himself helped develop the Clean-in-Place course, with fellow developers of the technology John Miller and Jim Harper. Harper is the J.T. Parker Endowed Chair in the Department of Food Science Technology at Ohio State.
The center also collaborates with industry in a variety of ways, Alvarez said. For example, it has an annual research grant with the Mid-America Food Processors Association to process different cultivars of tomatoes, grown at the college's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, for evaluation by the association members at their annual meeting.
"We process several tons of tomatoes -- last year there were 30 cultivars," Alvarez said. "At their annual meeting, the companies evaluate the processed tomatoes for color, flavor, texture, and select the cultivars they'll use for their commercial operations for the coming year."
Alvarez credits much of Food Industries Center's success to its active advisory board, composed of industry executives who offer guidance, oversee strategic planning, and provide resources for the facilities and teaching programs.
In addition, he said, the center is well-served from its partnerships with the food and beverage industry, in Ohio and nationwide. It has current collaborations with industry groups including the Mid-America Food Processors Association, the American Dairy Association Mideast, the Snack Food Association, Quality Chekd Dairies, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the International HACCP Alliance, and the Center for Innovative Food Technology.
"The industry is very supportive of our program," Alvarez said, "and we do everything we can to support the industry. It's a good relationship, and we're always working to make it even better."