Bemidji food co-op adds kitchen to boost local food producers

Restocking onions
Lisa Weiskopf restocks the locally grown onions that the Harmony Co-op in Bemidji, Minn. carries.
MPR Photo/Jon Heller

The kitchen at the back of the new and expanded Harmony Co-op is unfinished, with exposed wiring and the smell of fresh drywall. But soon it will sport industrial refrigerators and double convection ovens and the air will smell of chocolate tortes.

Cheryl Larson Krystosek, a baker and organic farmer, considered making pies at the new kitchen when it opens next April, but says, "It's the chocolate hazelnut torte that everyone in town is addicted to."

She hopes to be one of the incubator facility's first renters, once it's fully outfitted and attains FDA approval.

The goal is to provide a space where local food entrepreneurs like Larson Krystosek can turn out commercial products without having to build expensive, up-to-code second kitchens in their homes. This food can then be sold in restaurants and grocery stores. "I have some jams I want to do, too," Larson Krystosek says. "Ginger and brandy and rhubarb and honey jam, which is made with locally-sourced honey."

People all over Minnesota are trying to figure out how to make local foods practical on a larger scale. Farmers markets and subscription farms have blossomed, but creating a source of local produce or canned or baked goods that's large, reliable and safe enough to satisfy institutions like schools and hospitals remains a challenge. The missing pieces in some places are mid-level businesses like regional distributors and processing facilities.

That's where the incubator kitchen comes in. Modeled on a similar facility in north Minneapolis — the year-old Kindred Kitchen, which has helped spawn several successful catering and food cart businesses — the project aims to strengthen the regional "foodshed" in the Bemidji area.

Harmony produce manager Lisa Weiskopf, who has championed the kitchen with Simone Senogles of the Bemidji-based Indigenous Environmental Network, says, "We started talking about the lack of food access in rural and tribal Minnesota when the kitchen idea came up. The idea of a community kitchen seemed central to being able to facilitate a lot of different work. It's a way to turn produce into shelf-stable products."

Lisa Weiskopf and Simone Senogles
Lisa Weiskopf (left) and Simone Senogles (right) both of of Bemidji, Minn. in the space that that once the construction is done will become the commercial kitchen at Harmony Co-op.
MPR Photo/Jon Heller

The co-op plans to sell some of these products in its expanded new store across the street from Bemidji Woolen Mills. It might give them a community label or at least the notation that they were made at Harmony. But the producers could sell them elsewhere as well.

When it comes to the quality of the salsa or the spaghetti sauce or the pies, Weiskopf says most people have a tried-and-true recipe they're itching to make. "Our role with selling that product would be more for giving them publicity and a place to generate revenue," she says. "If the recipe doesn't work, it won't sell and that will be the end of that story. They can perfect it and that's their role."

The kitchen will cost around $75,000 to complete and is being paid for with bank and member equity loans. Since the aim is only to break even, it will be available to renters 24 hours a day for between $8 and $14 per hour. The kitchen hopes to draw a half-dozen anchor tenants, including a baker who will make a custom bread line for Harmony, and fill in with a rotating cast.

The kitchen will also be used for canning and cooking classes and for "light processing." That means taking ten crates of apples, for example, and slicing them so they can go into school lunch fruit salads. Many large institutions aren't equipped to handle raw, whole produce, which has been another barrier to local growers.

Larson Krystosek, who runs a coalition of about 10 Bemidji-area farmers, thinks the group may pool produce and use the kitchen for just this sort of processing.

Matching growers, producers and chefs to stores and schools, at least in theory, will fall to Senogles and a partnership called the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council, which will act as the coordinator and go-between. "We live in an economically depressed area," says Senogles. "Resources are leaving our area because of economics. The goal with the kitchen isn't to make hoity-toity products, but to improve access for those eating the food and also for those who want to take the plunge into running their own businesses."

"The goal with the kitchen isn't to make hoity-toity products, but to improve access."

"Once you provide a little bit of structure," she says, "there is no doubt it will grow and grow. People are so ready for it."

Practical support for fledgling chefs will be crucial, according to JoAnne Berkenkamp, local foods program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. An incubator kitchen can be a connective piece "between the farm and the fork," she says, but food entrepreneurs "need help in terms of market analysis. Credit is hard to come by. Capital is a huge issue."

"A lot of small businesses don't make it past the first couple of years," says Berkenkamp. "It's important that entrepreneurs go in with a real plan and open eyes. They need to know what pricing works, what regulations they need to address. They need to have a plan to manage cash flow. You really need an infrastructure around new entrepreneurs to make them successful."

Weiskopf and Senogles have enlisted partners to help the kitchen project and its tenants. The University of Minnesota's Center for Rural Entrepreneurial Studies is conducting a survey to determine how the community wants to use the kitchen. And once it's running, the center, perhaps along with the Minnesota Small Business Development Centers, will work with food producers to help them put together detailed business plans. Other help will be available when it comes to obtaining food handler licenses and liability insurance.

The Headwaters Regional Development Commission has lent the project a hand and so has Bemidji State University. Says Weiskopf, "Indian Health Service is on board to help ... Since we have this well-rounded advisory board, we've been able to make connections to the various parts of the community."

Bemidji is near three Indian reservations, Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth. Obesity and diabetes rates are high among Native Americans, and many tribes are trying to improve eating habits. The Indigenous Environmental Network, where Senogles works, received a $250,000 grant last year in part to establish a local food network in the region. She thinks the incubator kitchen project will help.

In the deli
Lisa Weiskopf in the deli of Harmony Co-op.
MPR Photo/Jon Heller

"There is a gap between reservations and towns," Senogles says. "We need to learn how to network better so we can use scarce resources together more. It's not just about how do we feel good, but how do we make meaningful partnerships with each other to improve the region for all of us."

Once the kitchen is operating, Weiskopf hopes other facilities will open, like a mobile meat processor. "The strategic goal is to build capacity," she says. "All of the food capacity — processing and dehydration and so on — has centralized in urban areas. The commercial kitchen introduces one processing facility back into the area."

Berkenkamp thinks the Harmony project represents a sea change in northern Minnesota. "We're starting to see that the Bemidji area is becoming a hot bed of local food issues," she says. "The leaders have been the southeast and the central area of the state, around Montevideo and Morris. But the area Bemidji is in has increasingly coalesced. And Harmony has helped facilitate that. They're expanding the food supply in the region with healthy options. I applaud them for trying to make this work."

The project could help bolster the local culture as well. "When you want to grow food and can only do it two or three months out of the year, how do you create that sustainable food system?" Senogles asks. "Why not draw on the knowledge of populations who have made northern Minnesota their home successfully, Native people and settlers who know how to garden and gather berries and wild rice?"

"This ties into our identity and strengthening our identity."