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Photo by Tamie Meck Food entrepreneurs Natalie and Chris Haines prepare Indian foods to serve at the Edesia Kitchen in Paonia. Engage Delta County will host three monthly Foodie Friday events at Edesia for those interested in starting or building a value-added food business in Delta County. The first event is this Friday evening, April 27.
Photo by Tamie Meck Mary George pulls a pizza from the wood-fired pizza oven at Edesia Kitchen in Paonia. Engage Delta County will host three monthly Foodie Friday events at Edesia for those interested in starting or building a value-added food business in Delta County. The first event is this Friday evening.

Engage is cooking up fun 'Foodie Friday'

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Food entrepreneurs Natalie and Chris Haines prepare Indian foods to serve at the Edesia Kitchen in Paonia. Engage Delta County will host three monthly Foodie Friday events at Edesia for those interested in starting or building a value-added food business

Do you have an idea for turning your crops and other food products into a business, but aren't sure where to start or how to make it grow? Then Foodie Friday might be for you.

Engage Delta County will host the first of three Foodie Friday events from 5-7 p.m. Friday at Edesia Kitchen, located at 395 Clark Avenue in Paonia. Scheduled each final Friday through June, the first event provides local food entrepreneurs an opportunity to meet with other foodies, share ideas, and sample a few locally produced foods and beverages.

It also provides an introduction to Engage, what resources are available to food entrepreneurs, and who its partners are, said Engage agriculture coordinator Barry Pennell. Engage will also listen to growers, producers and others about the problems they face in establishing their business in order to develop appropriate partnerships and programs. "We really want to understand where people are struggling," said Pennell.

Engage, ENtrepreneurial Growth in AGriculture and Energy, operates under the umbrella of the Technical College of the Rockies in partnership with the Delta County Economic Development Corporation, the Delta County School District and others. "Our mission is to create jobs," said Engage operations manager Shawn Gardner. "Innovation and entrepreneurship are at the core of how we're to approach that."

The value-added foods culture -- think making candy from raw honey or yogurts and cheeses from goat's milk -- already exists in Delta County. "I think all of those producers have challenges they're facing," said Gardner. Engage is focused on providing support for those seeking to take local, raw products through the "value chain" from production to consumer. "We want to help to identify what those are so we can create resources and relationships to help them overcome them."

Because people will enter the system at different stages of development, they're creating programs with multiple entry points to better evaluate business plans for weaknesses.

In Delta County, "We're finding that people are really good at what they're doing, and there are a lot of really good ideas," said Pennell. Then there's a whole business side that includes potential roadblocks like taxes, regulations, and establishing of distribution channels. "Once you really start digging into it, you realize that there's a lot more to it than, 'Hey, I've got a good idea.'"

Entrepreneurs need a plan if they want to succeed, said Pennell. Small business startups currently have a five-year failure rate of about 90 percent. Conversely, those who create and "incubate" a strong business plan have a 90-percent success rate. "It really increases the viability of the business."

Foodie Friday is Engage's first event focused on value-added products under a $680,000 Economic Development Administration grant awarded in 2017. They considered hosting a conference, but with so many already happening, and such a short window for busy producers to attend them, they chose instead to dovetail with established conferences. "We're all in this together when it comes to the agricultural piece of this," said Pennell.

Engage's focus in no on individual businesses or the direct-to-consumer cottage food market. Rather it's on helping producers wanting get products in stores, restaurants and specialty markets. They also aren't focusing on building businesses to the size of, say, Leroux Creek, which has produced marketed apple sauces since 1986. Rather, they strive to help "fill the gap" for small producers.

In addition to Edesia, which was established by Mary George and John Mattox in 2016 to support food entrepreneurs, Engage is in the process of establishing partnerships with other area commercial kitchens, including the one at Crawford Town Hall. "If you want to get in the game, then you have to be producing in a certified commercial kitchen," said Pennell. "And it's really expensive to build a kitchen."

When they think of all the possibilities for Delta County entrepreneurs to grow businesses, it can be overpowering, said Pennell and Gardner. They constantly have to pull themselves back to a neutral point. "That's a real challenge," said Gardner. "What are the small next steps that are executable."

They also want to avoid duplication of existing businesses. For example Farm Runners has already created a food distribution system on the Western Slope.

Foodie Friday also provides an opportunity to sample some of the locally produced foods and beverages already on the market and to meet the producers, and John and Mary at Edesia will fire up their wood-fired pizza oven.

As Engage works to build programming and partnerships, the value-added food sector is just one area of focus. Through development of mentors, apprenticeships and partnerships within and beyond Delta County, "We're looking to put our arms around all of agriculture," said Pennell. They have already established partnership with the Southwest Innovation Corridor (SWIC, innovatesouthwest.org) and Boulder-based Startup Colorado through Region 10's Small Business Development Center.

Events provide opportunity not just for entrepreneurs, but for "foodies at heart" and those interested in learning how to increase revenue streams through vertical integration, capturing of foods that might otherwise go to waste, partnerships, and other strategies. Since businesses could grow to a point where they need one or more employees, those looking to work in the industry are also welcome.

"When creative people get together, they start sharing ideas," said Pennell. That leads to teamwork and collaboration, which is what shared work spaces like commercial kitchens are about and one of the reasons they do so well in today's business world.

What Foodie Friday will look like in May depends on the response to this Friday's event. "If we see some common issues that we can really focus on," that is the direction in which they will go, said Pennell.

A special two-day Foodie Friday is planned for June. In addition to a Friday, June 22 event, Engage is partnering with Startup Colorado to host a day-long food entrepreneur workshop, "From Recipe to Revenues," on Saturday, June 23, at the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss.

Depending on the response, Foodie Friday events may continue throughout the summer.

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