Bree Schumacher started cooking homemade kale-based sauce for her children about a year ago. She never dreamed it would become a business.
But the Milwaukee food and beverage cluster, known as FaB Milwaukee, has a way of encouraging would-be entrepreneurs.
Schumacher’s Italian and Mexican flavored dinner sauces won Milwaukee Area Technical College and Reliable Water’s 2012 Milwaukee’s Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Contest.
She received $2,500 in seed money to get her business off the ground, an entrepreneurial consultation package from MATC and meetings with food industry executives at FaB.
While it took some doing, Schumacher and a scientist developed her homemade sauce into a recipe that could be made in large batches in a commercial kitchen, she said.
Now, her sauces are made at Contract Comestibles in East Troy, which has been manufacturing Busy Bree’s Dinner Starters for about four months. The sauces are sold at local grocery stores.
There are about 450 food and beverage manufacturing companies like Schumacher’s in the Milwaukee area, and many of them are involved in the FaB Milwaukee industry cluster.
FaB was founded by the regional economic development organization Milwaukee 7 and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) in 2012 to provide a central resource for the food and beverage industry to access information, job candidates and a network of potential partners, said Shelley Jurewicz, vice president of economic development for Milwaukee 7.
Its mission is to make the Milwaukee region an easy place to innovate, start, expand or locate a food or beverage business and it aims to drive industry job growth and make the area a leader in the food industry.
“The contact list that I’ve built for the network over the last actually two years now reaches about 500 companies,” Jurewicz said.
The network reaches about 700 food and beverage professionals in the area. That includes manufacturing, food ingredients, grocery, urban agriculture, packaging, distribution, wholesale and related services.
“We are just starting to tap into the groceries and the markets,” Jurewicz said. “We haven’t fully put ourselves in the space on the restaurant (group).”
The cluster was formed after a 2008 Deloitte study showed the M7 should be focusing its limited resources on food and beverage and power and controls within the manufacturing space, she said. They have the most potential for growth in the region.
The food ingredients manufacturing industry is a $71 billion industry that’s expected to grow at a rate of 14.5 percent rate nationally. Wisconsin is ranked second nationally in organic food production, which is expected to grow at a 20 percent rate, she said.
And because of its abundance of fresh water, Milwaukee is placed competitively to support these industries, Jurewicz said.
“We’re creating something that is creating the ecosystem for the cluster that we have here to thrive,” she said. “We have to play with all shapes and sizes of companies here in the region that are in that space.”
In addition to developing the area network, FaB is working with MATC to create food manufacturing courses and Milwaukee Public Schools to develop food programs.
There is a demand for the planned food entrepreneurship programs, said Armen Hadjinian, entrepreneur program coordinator at MATC. About 25 percent of the 80 who are enrolled in the general entrepreneurship program are planning or have started a food-related business.
The program includes introduction, communications, production, strategy and presentation skills courses. Students are instructed on topics like self-reliance and marketing on a tight budget.
One student in Hadjinian’s class is working on a high end bakery and evening lounge concept. Another is roasting coffee beans.
Entrepreneurship is not as unusual as it was a generation ago, and many young people in the program are interested in controlling their own destiny by starting a business, he said.
“I think a lot of people are thinking now is the time to take the leap,” Hadjinian said.
FaB is also in the process of posting a job board and creating a career center specifically for the food and beverage industry.
“We’re really working with the companies, regardless of size, to make sure they have the talent to meet their needs,” Jurewicz said.
The group will begin charging a membership fee in June for companies that wish to access the job board. The fee will be based on company size, to keep it feasible, Jurewicz said.
The membership will also include a detailed company profile in the FaB marketplace directory, to help businesses network with each other.
Long term, FaB hopes to support a boutique food manufacturing facility and a food industry campus for the group.
Its advisory board includes industry veterans Giacomo Falluca, president and chief executive officer of Palermo’s Pizza, Cathy Henry, president and chief operating officer of Sysco Food Services and Eric Olesen, president and owner of kringle maker O&H Danish Bakery.
But the advisory board also includes entrepreneurial businesses, like Becky’s Blissful Bakery, a Pewaukee gourmet candy company started by Rebecca Scarberry in 2007.
FaB recently hosted a food entrepreneur forum at Kasana Gourmet in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. The networking event put entrepreneurs like Scarberry in a room with experienced industry veterans like sausage pro Fritz Usinger.
“It was really fun to see the established industry turn out in support of the emerging industry,” Jurewicz said. “Because we have such a strong network that’s connected with each other now, we’re just ripe with mentors to serve the industry.”
Kasana is a new commercial kitchen that allows budding food businesses to test their products on a commercial scale.
Last year, Scarberry started teaching a food entrepreneurship course at Waukesha County Technical College. Those who utilize Kasana must first take her course to learn the ins and outs of commercial food production, she said.
“I’ve collected all of the information you need to start a business from the ground up,” Scarberry said.
She uses her course to recruit new entrepreneurs to FaB.
“Just their website alone, there’s just a wealth of information there,” she said. “We’re all in the same industry, so we’re all having the same struggles. Everyone wants to see the business succeed because they truly know how much time, effort and resources go into starting a business.” n