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Heating up Milwaukee’s FaBulous food & beverage industry

Not everyone has the opportunity to spend a year in another country, but that’s just what Matt and Katie Wessel did in 2012, when they spent a year immersed in Germany’s culture. While taking in the customs and ways of daily life, they were struck by how soft pretzels are ingrained in the country’s cuisine, and how different the German version is from its American counterpart. With that experience, they took action … starting Milwaukee Pretzel Company in 2013, bringing this German tradition back to Milwaukee, a city rich in German history.

Like Milwaukee Pretzel Company, the founding of Alt Brew, a Madison-based brewery, was inspired by a husband-and-wife shared life experience. Trevor Easton and his wife, Maureen, founded Alt Brew after Maureen was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. They could no longer share their love of beer together … so they took things into their own hands and created beer made entirely of gluten-free ingredients.

You can now find Milwaukee Pretzel Company and Alt Brew, and many other homegrown food and beverages, all over the Milwaukee region, which has more than 250 food and beverage manufacturers. Along with more than 1,000 food-processing companies that call Wisconsin home, we also boast these statistics:

  • Wisconsin cheesemakers make one quarter of our nation’s cheese – 3.2 billion pounds in 2016;
  • We exported $3.5 billion in agricultural products in 2017 to 147 countries; and
  • Wisconsin ranks first in the nation for snap beans, cheese, cranberries, ginseng, and dry whey.

It’s clear that since before Wisconsin became a state, agriculture, and food and beverage manufacturing has played an important economic role here. Agricultural jobs make up 11.9 percent of our workforce, and a national study found that Wisconsin accounts for more than 3 percent of the direct output of food and beverage products, yet our state’s population is less than 2 percent of the nation.

FaB Wisconsin

The high output of food and beverages is not an accident. Beyond our region’s culture and history, locating in Wisconsin has distinct advantages for companies like Milwaukee Pretzel Company and Alt Brew. Our state’s infrastructure and important organizations like FaB Wisconsin (FaB = Food and Beverage) support and promote startup companies by encouraging partnerships with established companies.

Recently, First Business Bank became a sponsor of the FaBcap Accelerator, which is organized by FaB Wisconsin and began in 2016. This program enhances the capacity and capitalization of emerging food and beverage companies. Participants get one-on-one coaching from experts within the industry as well as from professional service providers. The program culminates with an investor pitch and a $10,000 cash award!

Through our bank’s sponsorship, I’ve been working with these startup food and beverage company founders, teaching them about financing their businesses now and in the future. At these meetings, the stories are inspirational, the information valuable, and the food and beverages are amazing!

Through this program, FaB Wisconsin provides a forum for business leaders to collaborate and achieve success by solving shared problems. The organization is vital to the food and beverage industry in a state that thrives on food and beverage production and related activities.

Even though it’s less than ten years old, FaB Wisconsin is providing valuable leadership and opportunities that other industries in our state should model. I’m excited to be involved, looking forward to playing a part in helping these entrepreneurs flourish, and enjoying the opportunity to participate in their research and development efforts (read: taste testing).

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Craig Cerbins leads First Business Bank’s Food & Beverage industry practice group and is active with FaB Wisconsin as a member of its Industry Growth Committee and a FaBcap Accelerator coach. He recently earned HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) food safety certification.

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