November 2006 Issue
Cooking Up Success
The ACEnet incubator in Athens has hatched food businesses that capitalize on local ingredients.
by Joan DeMartin, Photography by Michael Dibari
The villages of rural Italy are known worldwide for their picturesque vistas, regional ingredients and cuisines, and generations of passionate artisans. What these villages also have modeled for centuries is the collaboration among the producers of food and art, along with the larger community -a "fusion" of agriculture, restaurants and artisans, with government and private-sector resources that benefit their regions as a whole.
This collaborative network is what prompted a group of Athens, Ohio, residents to visit the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy in 1984, where they met with heads of industry, government officials and private foundations to study the area's "flexible network" approach to business collaboration.
In 1985, they founded a nonprofit organization, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), with a mission to "build a healthy regional economy in Southeastern Ohio through the growth of locally owned businesses, especially those operated by lower-income residents."
Twenty-one years later, ACEnet has eight full-time staff members who provide an array of business consulting services; it owns and operates a commercial kitchen and thermal-processing facility used by food entrepreneurs from four states; and it leases over 120,000 square feet of light manufacturing, warehouse and office space on two campuses located in Athens and Nelsonville.
This month, ACEnet will be using the "power of collaborative marketing" to full advantage when it launches its first e-commerce web site, www.artofohio.com, with a pilot group of artisans whose businesses it helped.
The substance of ACEnet's impact, however, is detailed through the individual stories of the entrepreneurs and artisans the agency has helped launch in the last two decades. In fact, the current CEO and president of ACEnet, Angie Cantrell, says the organization prefers to tell its story "through the [hundreds of] businesses" it has incubated over the years.
A recent example is Milo's Whole World Gourmet, started just three years ago by Jonathan Milo Leal. Milo's produces an array of wine-based pasta and simmer sauces that fuse locally grown ingredients with ethnic seasonings from around the world. The products are now distributed through specialty food stores in 46 states. Leal, who has lived in and visited more than 30 different countries, holds both an M.B.A. and a master's degree in French from Ohio University. He continues to benefit from ACEnet's assistance with product development and marketing, and the lease of its office space and commercial kitchen where all of Milo's products are made and bottled.
Cantrell calls Milo's a "great ambassador for ACEnet" - Leal's business has been successful both regionally and nationally, and he continues to give back to the local community. Leal has started two more businesses: Dinners Made Easy, an evolution of his catering and personal chef business Gourmet Your Way, which invites the public into the kitchen twice a month to prepare meals to bring home. The ingredients are produced locally and the creation of the recipes is done on site.
Another example of a food business that has become hugely successful with ACEnet's help is Frog Ranch Salsas, owned and operated by Craig Cornett. He started the business from a gardening hobby in 1992, and began producing his four varieties of salsas and two kinds of pickles "in earnest" in 1994. His products use as many Ohio ingredients as possible, and even the glass and labels for his jars are locally manufactured.
Cornett has had a 14-year relationship with ACEnet that includes use of their kitchen and thermal processing facility to produce his 60,000 cases of salsa and pickles a year (Frog Ranch is the largest single producer using ACEnet's facilities). Cornett also employed ACEnet's business expertise to explore distribution channels and networks for his products. Today, Kroger's is his biggest customer.
A smaller, more recently incubated food business is Dailey's Treasures, which specializes in meat marinades, and beef, deer and buffalo jerky. Jenni Dailey has lived in rural Appalachian Ohio her entire life and started out making deer jerky in her home. About four years ago, she sought help from ACEnet to develop her business skills, and as a result, ACEnet acquired a license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to allow meat-based businesses to fully utilize its kitchen. Now Dailey has access to an industrial oven and a bottling line and can accomplish in two hours what previously took two weeks in her home kitchen. Dailey claims that "if it weren't for ACEnet, I wouldn't have a business." Dailey's Treasures sells three varieties of marinade and two types of jerky to more than 30 markets in Ohio and West Virginia.
For her part, Cantrell says that "entrepreneurs grow only according to their passion and willingness to risk - but they need to have a sound business plan, and based on that plan, take a calculated risk."
ACEnet continually focuses on how to better help small businesses, and its primary tool is the "sector" approach to business development.
The idea is that similar businesses, networking together, can share ideas, reduce operating expenses, produce joint marketing and increase market exposure. And for ACEnet, the food sector is the "cornerstone" of this network. To that end, it employs a full-time certified food scientist, Bill Justice, who is the organization's primary liaison with the ODA. He ensures that all food processing in the kitchen and thermal production facility meets government standards, and also helps individual entrepreneurs obtain the appropriate government licenses and certifications. At first, Justice says, it was a "grudging acceptance of the products produced in their kitchen, now it's a license to sell."
Cross-pollinating of business sectors into individual marketing strategies helps the fusion of food and art that ACEnet calls "regional flavor." Take the two businesses that lease space for their shops on the ACEnet Athens campus: A Lasting Impression, which creates custom gift baskets, and Hyacinth Bean, which offers a full-service flower shop along with handmade gifts. Both sell locally produced food products in their shops and often incorporate these products into their custom orders.
Although ACEnet has incubated a large concentration of food-related businesses, it also has helped many individual artisans to focus their business plans and marketing strategies. Wulf Reinicke, a mechanical engineer by profession, has dedicated the second half of his career to full-time woodworking. He owns 30 acres of hardwood forest and harvests trees or salvages old wood using draft horses to minimize environmental disturbance. He then mills and kiln dries the wood before beginning each handcrafted piece. ACEnet helped him design and print his brochures and urged him to join the marketing collaborative, Hickory Ridge Artisan Group. Many of his smaller pieces are sold at the Village Bakery and Cafe in downtown Athens (another ACEnet incubated business).
And then there are the potters. Jennifer L'Heureux, the owner of Nelsonville Pottery and Art Supply, is a real model for ACEnet incubated artisans. In 2004, she moved her business into an old pharmacy building that includes her own pottery-making equipment and an art and pottery supply store. It also serves as a retail outlet for local artists, where L'Heureux teaches pottery-making classes year-round for Hocking College.
L'Heureux now serves on the board of directors of ACEnet. In fact, over 50 percent of the board members represent businesses mentored by ACEnet.
"ACEnet wants to be directed by the clients they serve, not direct the clients they serve," Cantrell emphasizes
For more information on ACEnet, visit www.acenetworks.org.