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So you want to go into the food business

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Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
For 25 years, a key factor in launching food startups in Minnesota has been a state-funded program called the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. The program's test kitchen, pictured here, is on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Crookston
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

In a small tucked-away lab on the University of Minnesota campus here, Brent Carlson-Lee wears a wrinkled white lab coat and tinkers with what he hopes soon will be a deep fried appetizer sold at local restaurants. He's cagey about the details of the snack--he often makes people sign a confidentially agreement before telling them about it--but he says something unique happens after it's formed and before it appears on the plate.

Right now, he's trying to perfect the dough. It has to be right even after it's been frozen; it can't be too dry or stretchy and he'd like it to be saltier without adding more salt. "Coming up with a food idea people want is the easy part," Carlson-Lee said. "Execution is the hard part."

Charan Wadhawan and Brent Carlson-Lee
Food scientist Charan Wadhawan, left, talks with entrepreneur Brent Carlson-Lee of Minneapolis during his first visit to a state-funded test kitchen in Crookston on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. The kitchen is part of a program called the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, which seeks to create new markets for new or existing commodities and products.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

That's why Charan Wadhawan is on hand. She's the senior food scientist at the kitchen lab, which is part of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI , created by the Legislature in 1987 to nurture Minnesota-grown products, from food to renewable energy sources. The lab's Formica counters hold every kitchen gadget a food entrepreneur could need: a dough press, timers, a deep fat fryer, scales, a blender, a microwave oven and two commercial mixers. The cabinets are filled with spices and mysterious ingredients like "potato starch" and "dry black malt."

Anyone with a bright idea for how to use sunflower seeds or raspberries or other local offerings can apply for technical assistance from AURI and benefit for free from the lab and Wadhawan's expertise. In 22 years with the institute, she's had a hand in developing everything from granola to hot wing sauce to jam to specialty bread for French Meadow Bakery & Cafe in Minneapolis.

As the caravans of food trucks along Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis and Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul attest, food culture in Minnesota is booming. The state has everything from world-renowned blue cheese from the Caves of Faribault to "Cakedy," cake and candy in one that's dubbed "Minnesota's candy bar." This is partly an outgrowth of a larger, national locavore and gourmet movement, but changes to local and state laws have helped too. Loosened regulations have spurred a rash of new brewpubs  that reaches from Red Wing to Duluth.

On a practical level, that's translated into myriad opportunities for self-employment. The food business is inherently entrepreneurial because it's one of the easier and cheaper industries to get into, unlike, say, medical devices or bio-fuels. And it makes use of skills many of us already have, like the ability to cook. To urge would-be chefs along, some communities offer microloans. Others have built incubator kitchens, such as Kindred Kitchen in north Minneapolis and another that's due to open at Harmony Co-op in Bemidji.

There is no way I would have gotten to where I am without this support

But Wadhawan offers a warning: Producing commercial foods is more complicated than it seems. "Anybody who wants to start a business, the easiest one they can think of is the food business," she said. So, she feels obliged to put clients through their paces.

"They think, 'We have grandma's recipe and nothing tastes like this and we can sell this,' " she said. "I have so many clients with barbecue sauces and salsas and jellies. I question them. 'Why would I buy your barbecue sauce, there are so many in the marketplace?' They say, 'Mine tastes different and there is nothing like mine in the marketplace.' I say, 'Is yours made with ketchup, brown sugar and spices?' And they say, 'Yes.'

 I'm not trying to discourage them, but their goal is to make money and my goal is to help them do that."

That can involve  writing a set of nutritional facts,  testing for allergens,  helping scale up a recipe for large production, even  answering panicky phone calls when the salt won't stick. Wadhawan was raised in India, where her mother treated stomach aches with wild celery seed, thus spawning a food scientist. 

When Rob Fuglie was inventing a peanut-like snack out of sunflower seeds called Nots!, he wasn't sure how to scale up the recipe or make the nuggets look appealing.  "They looked like chicken feed, pale and extruded looking," he said. Fuglie spent three days with Wadhawan, and  learned that molasses would give the nuggets a warmer tone. "It was fabulous," he said. Now he's making Nots! out of a nursing home kitchen in Fergus Falls and having a hard time keeping ahead of the orders.

AURI has  a $5.4 million budget for 2012, supplementing its Legislative financing with money from private foundations, grants and agriculture groups like the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. The goal is to take big ideas and make them practical.

AURI takes on more than 100 projects per year in food, renewable energy, biobased products or products made from agricultural leftovers. In the end, a third to half fall out. "We're at capacity," said Teresa Spaeth, executive director.

Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute in Crookson has helped entrepreneurs develop and launch dozens and dozens of food products. Some of those products were photographed in the test kitchen on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Because Wadhawan gets in on food ideas so early, she often can see trends coming. Stashed on a high shelf in the lab is a dormant bread machine from a decade or more ago when everybody was making bread machine mixes. She's seen the rush toward organic, all-natural, and gluten-free. "Now I'm seeing a lot of raw foods," she said. "Unique gourmet products, like jams and jellies, made from raw fruits. I'm seeing stuff for diabetics. I have a jam for diabetics that uses an artificial sweetener, but not what you see in the market. It's pretty good."

Back in the early 2000s, when fear of carbohydrates had gripped Minnesota and the nation, Wadhawan helped French Meadow develop a line of "functional breads," its Women's and Men's loaves, high in fiber and nutrition and low in carbohydrates. They ended up being the bakery's most successful offerings ever, according to founder Lynn Gordon. "I had made a list of pumpkin seeds and fava beans and other legumes and seeds but it wasn't easy," she said. "That's where Charan came in. She helped me develop the breads. She'd come up with a recipe and we'd make it and it would taste awful. We'd think, maybe more of this or that. It was probably the 20th recipe that worked."

Much of the testing was done in the bakery itself and Wadhawan would drive the nearly five hours from Crookston to Minneapolis, sometimes more than once a month over a period of two or three years. "It took a lot to develop that bread," said Gordon. "I couldn't have done it without her. And she couldn't have done it without me. It was a great effort."

This is Carlson-Lee's first visit to AURI, but the appetizer isn't his first food product; he runs a cart in summers selling donut burgers. Nor is this the first time he's spoken with Wadhawan. The two have been working together for a year by phone, ever since she sampled his invention in his northeast Minneapolis kitchen. "This is extremely helpful," he said. "There is no way I would have gotten to where I am without this support."

The next step for Carlson-Lee is to have a new piece of machinery delivered to AURI that will increase production from 50 to 8,000 pieces per hour, an upgrade that might necessitate yet another tweaking of the recipe. And then his appetizer will go to a sensory evaluation class at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. "It's easy to get excited about your idea because it's your idea," he said. "That's where consumer testing comes into play. I don't have a team to test. It's just me and Charan."