Georgia home to growing number of food entrepreneurs

Food processing is Georgia’s largest manufacturing sector with 61,000 employees at big-name companies including Coca-Cola, Tyson and Kellogg.

But the state’s also home to a growing number of small players making products such as sorbets, salsas and sauces. They start with a dream, struggle for funding and markets, and look to the day when their wares will be in pantries across the country.

This month, the state sponsored the first-ever “Farm to Fork” workshop in Tifton, drawing 45 people who wanted to learn about everything from business planning and regulations to packaging and distribution and sales.

“We kept getting these calls from people wanting to start these businesses,” explained Donnie Smith, director of the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness. No data is kept on the number of recent food processing startups, he said, but “it’s growing.”

A new business, Local Market South, hopes to help some of them by selling their goods through its website. The company partners with merchants to offer a one-stop shopping and shipping service of Southern food and drink, the better, they feel, to lure customers looking for a taste of the region.

“Our goal is to bring together all the amazing food products being handcrafted throughout the South,” said Jennifer Maley, who founded the business with her husband, John.

“There wasn’t one umbrella place to buy them and to celebrate the great artisan foods made here.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to several food entrepreneurs about their companies. Some had no business or food industry experience before launching.

Others owned restaurants now sell beyond those walls. Here’s what they had to say on key aspects of their work:

-- On why and how you got into the food business ...

“I grew up with my family growing and putting up vegetables every summer, so it was only natural for a hobby to develop. After being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years, I started teaching school and then began making jellies and salsa to give away as gifts for my husband’s company. The enjoyment I got from making products, coupled with demands for more of it, eventually led me to quit my dream job as a teacher and focus strictly on building this business.” — Lauri Jo Bennett, Lauri Jo’s Southern Style Canning.

“I worked 24 years in hospitals in the clinical lab as a staff supervisor. I always had a large vegetable garden and flower beds. I taught myself to can, freeze and pickle extra produce. A great aunt from South Georgia saw my interest and gave me some of her recipes. I started making everyone’s favorites, giving them as presents. After several people encouraged me, I chose two commercial plants to produce small quantities. I found a distributor that got my Plum Perfect Plum Sauce into Whole Foods. I have no employees. I’m self-funding. I took the quickest route, hiring established commercial kitchens to do the processing.” — Merrily McLaughlin, Merrilily Gardens.

“I’ve been a chef for over 15 years, working all over the country. I always gravitated towards being a butcher. I feel like it was what I was meant to do. We started in 2008 as we saw the demand for locally grown and made meats begin to rise. We started from scratch: no loans, hired builders or silent partners. I poured the concrete stairs myself. Kyle, who runs production, framed the walls and hung sheet rock. My wife hung the ceiling. Doing everything ourselves has been tough, but it has its rewards. When the smoker we built breaks, we know exactly how to fix it. We know and installed every bolt, every hinge. This is our home.” — Rusty Bowers, Pine Street Market.

“I started my culinary career in Atlanta in 1994 and worked as a chef in New York, San Diego, Burlington, Vt., and Los Angeles before returning in 2006. I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, and decided to get an MBA back in 2009. I met my business partner, Hunter Thornton, at Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State. High Road was our graduate business plan. We won some seed capital at an International Business Plan competition at the University of Nebraska, and then raised some money to launch right after graduation in 2010.” — Keith Schroeder, High Road Craft Ice Cream.

“I had a catering company in Atlanta for 14-plus years. My Hot Squeeze Sweet Heat Chipotle Sauce was a by-product of a dish served while catering. For years, folks encouraged me to bottle my special sauce. I laughed since I was so busy catering. In 2006, I made it my New Year’s resolution to figure out how to put my sauce in a bottle. Three months after bottling Hot Squeeze, I got a call from a buyer at Whole Foods saying she wanted [it] in all her stores in the mid-Atlantic. Other regions followed. I found myself having a food business before I even knew what I was doing.” — Sue Sullivan, Hot Squeeze.

-- On the challenges you’ve faced ...

“There have been many. City of Atlanta licensing, finding commercial shared kitchen space, finding affordable supplies, finding a distributor who will offer a fair wholesale price and, lately, negotiating with national chains who want to carry my cakes but are not willing to offer a realistic wholesale price. Each of these ... seemed insurmountable at the time and pretty much were, but a solution was found and I continued down the road so much wiser than before.” — Kathryn Bowden, Unforgettable Pound Cakes.

“We’ve had many things to learn about, but a big one is establishing our brand and learning about marketing. We’re relied on self-education — reading books, attending conferences and learning as we go.” — Jon Morgan, Pure Bliss Organics.

“Knowing when to ask for help. I know how to make tea. I know how to market tea. But everything in between gets cloudy. But when your are a small business, you attempt to do it all to save a few dollars. I’ve learned that it is better to pay for help. It saves you time, headache and money in the end.” — Brandi Barnes Shelton, Just Add Honey Tea Company.

“Because local banks are afraid to take a risk with a new company in the current economy, obtaining money. [Also] numerous growing pains. Our business has grown so fast that it has been extremely difficult keeping up with demand of production.” — Lauri Jo Bennett.

“There are many people doing this. How to become unique and not just produce strawberry jelly.” — Merrily McLaughlin.

-- On your biggest success so far ...

“Earning our way onto the shelves at Whole Foods throughout the Southeast was a big win for High Road. Our biggest success, though, is that we’re still here after one year of operating. Surviving as a start-up in a down economy is no small feat.” — Keith Schroeder.

“I have had my own commercial kitchen for one year. For two years, I was sharing space, squeezed into a corner, renting either by the hour or the month from caterers. I wasn’t able to have a set weekly schedule. I would have to work around whatever jobs they had going that week and if I had an order to fill and no kitchen time available, I would have to figure something out, usually resorting to baking in my kitchen at home. Not the perfect scenario.” — Kathryn Bowden.

“Our brand being recognized nationally.” — Griffin Bufkin, Southern Soul Barbeque.

“We’ve had about 30 percent annual growth for the last several years. Our products have developed a following and we’ve built a strong team.” — Jon Morgan.

-- On your goals for your business ...

“My foremost goal is to build my company up to sell it off for a major profit in the next five years. I have many goals as far as building the company.” — Sue Sullivan

“To have a storefront by the end of 2012. We will also continue to expand our wholesale accounts in the U.S.” — Brandi Barnes Shelton.

“We want to be the global ice cream brand from Atlanta. It’s important for us to grow as an employer. [Business partner] Hunter [Thornton] and I want to help drive the local economy, and the local market is just the beginning of our ability to employ people. Right now, we’re launching a subsidiary of High Road in Singapore.” — Keith Schroeder.

-- On the proliferation of food purveyors in the South and in Georgia ...

“Southern cooking is such an important part of Southern life. Everyone has their favorite recipes handed down from grandma. As farm-to-table cooking continues to rise, restaurants and customers will constantly be looking for that unique, handmade product that is just a little bit different and special.” — Rusty Bowers

“Folks have been farming and canning as far as anyone can remember. I think it’s the handed-down traditions of Southern foodways. Right now we are having a renaissance in the South with an extraordinary production of regional artisan cheese, honey and some very impressive vineyards.” — Griffin Bufkin.

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Advice for startup food purveyors

Tempted to start your own food company? Here are some tips from Donnie Smith:

• Develop a business plan. You have to know if your idea will make money.

• Rent time and space at a commercial kitchen. You have to know whether you can “scale” your product and mass produce.

• Study up on licensing requirements and regulations. They’re critical in the food business.

• Contact the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness. It’s a good starting point to learn what to do and how to do it.