Alabama’s food entrepreneurs are legion. Sister Schubert got her start in Troy, Ala. Wickle’s Pickles are created in Dadeville. Mook Mills Cheese Straws are from Tuscumbia. Mamie’s Cheese Straws are created at Spring Hill Kitchens near Mobile. Belle Chevre Fromagerie produces goat cheese delicacies in rural north Alabama, and Mike Elliott’s Barbeque Sauce is manufactured near Lake Martin. The road from the kitchen to the grocery store or restaurant is full of potholes, however. The odds are against small businesses, with more than 50 percent failing in the first year and 80 percent within five years. The Auburn University Food Systems Institute desires to improve these odds by creating a Virtual Food Entrepreneur Initiative that will provide a central source of information and expertise to help hopeful entrepreneurs get their product ready for market, find financing and negotiate a maze of regulations.
Experts on campus already provide a host of services. Sister Schubert now boasts sales of $100 million annually, selling more than 500 million yeasty rolls every year. Back in 1989 however, Patricia Barnes was baking rolls in her Troy kitchen. Her first sales were at a church bazaar, and she sought help from Auburn for nutrition labeling and Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) training before she took the next step. Wickle’s Pickles received assistance with nutrition facts and food testing. Auburn helped
Mook Mills through a business incubator affiliated with the University of North Alabama in Florence.
The experts who provide help express frustration, however, because they can only counsel prospective entrepreneurs about their own small area of proficiency. They find that entrepreneurs—including small farmers—often know how to produce “the work,” but lack the skills necessary for operating and growing a business. Faculty involved with the Virtual Food Entrepreneur Initiative wanted a place to refer aspiring entrepreneurs to get the full range of information and services they need.
AUFSI’s Virtual Food Entrepreneur Initiative will bring together existing university organizations, such as the Small Business Development Center, the Auburn Business Incubator, and the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) food safety team, to provide the information that aspiring food entrepreneurs need to start or improve a business. Ultimately, the Virtual Food Entrepreneur Initiative will have a Web presence, with much helpful material for those seeking to go into business for themselves.
The center’s first project is a Food Entrepreneur Conference, scheduled for April. Like the Food Entrepreneur Initiative, the Food Entrepreneur Conference encourages entrepreneurship in a state without many large industries to provide well-paying jobs. Just one successful food entrepreneur can provide several jobs to his or her neighbors, and those people could eventually move forward with their own successful food business. A cycle of success could begin.