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OSU Kitchen Bridge From Home to Marketplace

In the struggling economy some who have lost their jobs are trying to turn their passions into a steady salary. At Ohio State, a program designed to teach students how to produce mass-market food products, is now helping cooking enthusiasts bring home recipes into store shelves. WOSU's Marilyn Smith has the story.

Originally designed as a test kitchen for undergraduate and grad students , the Food Industries Center at Ohio State also offers a place for fledgling entrepreneurs interested in getting into the food business.

The eight-thousand square foot facility is divided into several cooking areas. There are standard, ceramic and convection ovens, oversized refrigerators and commercial scale pots and pans.

Cooks can use hot and cold canning contraptions and a labeling machine. Jayne Sholl runs the program.

In addition to being an ideal place for food science students to conduct experiments, she says the OSU facility creates a bridge for outside entrepreneurs who have outgrown their home equipment.

"Most of our entrepreneurs the base of what we have are people who say 'Oh, I've been making this in my home and giving it to family and friends and they keep telling me I need to sell it.' 'So how can I make this product to sell? I was told I can't make it in my kitchen. I was told I need to have a licensed facility.'"

That's what the Food Industries center offers - a chance for cooks to experiment without having to rent and outfit a commercial kitchen.

Entrepreneurs can rent part of the space in blocks of time at a cost averaging between twenty and twenty-five dollars an hour depending on what equipment they need.

Paul Courtright supervises the facility. His job is to make sure the cooking area is ready to go when the entrepreneur arrives.

"I would get the equipment out, make sure everything's clean, make sure everything's set up for him, workin.' Set him up in an area have everything hooked up so when he comes in he just has to start doin his production work."

The cooks do have to clean up , or they get charged a hefty fee. Organizers say the program attracts serious cooks, and those who aren't tend to weed themselves out. Coordinator Jayne Sholl says the biggest challenge is scaling small batch recipes into big ones.

"You have to come in and experiment and see if you double or triple your batch will it be the same. So we have the ability to start them out just on a stove top if than want to see what it's like working in a strange facilty."

Michael Hermick faced that challenge. He took his grandmother's tomato sauce recipe and decided to try to sell it at local grocery stores. He went from making small batches in his kitchen to producing Josephine's Pasta Sauce in fifty gallon kettles.

'Italian cooks don't like to measure. We just throw things in and it was really difficult to measure and weigh everthing we put into the products so that we could duplicate the process."

In just a year, Hermick has gone from cooking for family and friends to his own product line of pasta sauce, gourmet sauce and balsamic dressing.

Zapico foods is now sold in nine stores in Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. He plans to look for a distributor and hopes to open a second division for restaurants and food service companies.

"It is bigger than I thought it was going to be, yes. I'm growing pretty quickly. I've been focused full-time on it since probably about August."

It was in August that Hermick lost his full time job when the medical supply company he worked for went under. Hermick says he was making a pretty good living, but he doesn't miss his job.

"So I miss the money a little bit but it's nice to get up every day and do what you love to do."

Gretchen McQuown lost her job too. Now she's the head of her own candy company.

"I'm co-owner and founder of the Purple Turtle Caramel Company and it starts out with hand-stirred butter caramel that we make. Our signature item is chocolate turtles."

McQuown also makes chocolate-covered caramels, pretzel sticks dipped in caramel, chocolate and pecans and chocolate-caramel-pecan tarts in a butter pastry.

She and business partner Beth Fisher sell their confections in two stores in Columbus.

McQuown says coming to the Food Industries Center has helped her in many ways. But she discovered the cooking and packaging and labeling can be labor-intensive and the partners must now decide their next step.

"(O)kay where are we going from here? How do we automate this more? Because that's really what we need to do to be able to make a great profit. People like our product. It's just the time involved that make the price high."

McQuown says there are times she thinks her candy company will make it and other days when she's not so sure.

Program coordinator Jayne Sholl says that's pretty typical of most of the entrepreneurs who come to the Food Industries Center.

"I would say 90 percent of the time people realize it's more than they thought. And they thank us that they didn't invest a lot of money because it's an idea that they can't possibly put that much effort in. So maybe that's a sad thing but it's also a good thing. I think it's good that we helped at least helped them to realize what they can and cannot do."

Marilyn Smith WOSU News