Immokalee’s Florida Culinary Accelerator is an Organic Game Changer
Sep 30, 2016 08:44AM
By Aisling Swift
To change the game in producing organic food products, Collier county officials area are asking aspiring culinary entrepreneurs about their needs via a short survey that will help planners and builders design a new Florida Culinary Accelerator in Immokalee. This state-of-the-art kitchen, food processing and packing facility will give local organic farmers, vegan, raw and gluten-free chefs, juicers and others the opportunity to take their product or recipe to the next level as a successful business.
“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 the Collier County Office of Business & Economic Development. “The accelerator will diversify our economy by providing the facility and resources needed to accelerate food product companies.”
Marshall Goodman, director of the county’s accelerators in Naples and Immokalee, believes Immokalee is the perfect location due to its farm resources, small, local food businesses and proximity to Naples, which known for its healthy lifestyle, love of food and growing locavore movement, which favors locally grown and made products.
“I think the locavore movement would be well served by putting this facility at residents’ fingertips. We can keep the costs down and provide equipment and services that normally would be out of the reach of a startup company,” says Goodman.
Through a partnership between the county and local nonprofit Economic Incubators, Inc., a 5,000-square-foot warehouse at Immokalee Regional Airport will be transformed into the Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee, offering an 18-month educational and mentorship program in addition to a food lab operated by the University of Florida Southwest Florida Research & Education Center. The accelerator will be designed for use by farmers and cooperatives, startup food companies and home-kitchen entrepreneurs, but also will be available to mid-size 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, the program also will provide a retail space to sell products—Woodstock’s, at the Naples Accelerator, off Pine Ridge Road at 3510 Kraft Road.
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 accelerator’s first tenant. 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 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 and Food & Thought. Due to the seasonality in Florida during the summer months, she says, they source produce nationwide, but buy a lot of produce from local farms in the winter.
In a few months, the couple will open a new North Naples test kitchen to help their current clients develop new products, which may eventually be processed in the Immokalee accelerator.
“We see this as the perfect bridge and a great way to build up momentum here in town,” 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.”
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 hyperbaric, cold-pressure process that keeps foods, juices and beverages fresher and safer longer. The accelerator is being designed to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulatory standards, as well as local and state regulations.
In its last session, the Florida Legislature appropriated $2 million for the county’s business and culinary accelerators in Naples and Immokalee. The county also applied for federal grants and just received approval for a $112,536 USDA grant to purchase culinary equipment.
“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 [email protected]. Complete the survey, available in English, Spanish and Creole. SurveyMonkey.com/r/FloridaCulinaryAcceleratorEnglish, SurveyMonkey.com/r/CulinaryAcceleratorSpanish, SurveyMonkey.com/r/CulinaryAcceleratorCreole.