It’s any entrepreneur’s dream to take a business idea, passion or invention and turn it into something great. The Syracuse Community Test Kitchen (COMTEK) located within the South Side Innovation Center building (SSIC) at 2610 S. Salina St., helps food entrepreneurs all over Syracuse do exactly that by teaching the skills and values needed to turn a small business into a profitable, sustainable one.
Teamed up with Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management and Morrisville State College’s small food processing center, Nelson Farms, entrepreneurs have many resources available to them such as a 500-square foot test kitchen, nutritional cooking classes, product improvement seminars, business skills and product development training.
Director and research chef Lynne Foster has been head of the program for a little more than a year now and has had some fantastic success stories already, with the hope of fulfilling more cooking and baking dreams down the road for entrepreneurs.
Foster studied business management at the University of Massachusetts and then went on to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America, where she completed an associate degree in culinary arts. Foster has worked for about 20 years as a food consultant for many large companies such as Nestles, where she had her first externship after school.
Becoming a research chef was one of Foster’s longtime passions; she would ask herself, “Who creates this stuff in the grocery stores? How can I make a product that is better?” Taking the position as director and head research chef opened many doors and opportunities for her to hone her skills and put her in a setting that can help other individuals become successful.
“Our clients are the reason I wake up in the morning,” Foster said. “Seeing them succeed puts a smile on my face and theirs.”
Charlene Barnes, owner of Echols Gourmet Wholesale Desserts, began her beautiful relationship with the South Side Innovation Center at the first open house of the kitchen back in 2008. Barnes has turned her home-based business of making gourmet caramel-candy corn and miniature pound cakes, into a reputable expanding business that has showcased products at the New York State Fair this year at the Pride of New York building and currently at the Syracuse University Flea Market on South Crouse Avenue.
“Going through COMTEK, I was given so many resources in such a short amount of time — a co-packer, information on making a product better, learning to make shelf life of my product and working with a research chef,” Barnes said. “I liked the one-on-one, and they were all concerned about my business.”
At first, Barnes struggled with the shelf-life and the packaging of both her pound cakes and caramel-candy corn. After being introduced to a food scientist, she was advised to add more oil into the batter of the cakes to increase the moisture and freshness. Barnes also changed the packaging of her product from lighter to heavier bags — this also helped preserve the moisture of the cakes.
With her soon-to-be famous Gourmet Caramel Corn, Barnes also cured a packaging issue by changing bag types. She went from a poly bag that holds the corn to a foil bag — a little thicker than tin foil — which keeps more moisture out of the corn so it stays fresher longer. Thanks to guidance and suggestions from the experts, her products have evolved and are now ready for grocery stores and buyers.
For brew master Dean Jones, the help of the test kitchen experts has turned a life-long passion of brewing beer and competing in national barbecue competitions for the last 12 years into a business with the hopes of taking the food industry by storm.
Jones has finalized a product with a new image, taste and attitude when compared to other barbecue sauces on the market — including the packaging, labeling and marketing. From a Kansas City-style sauce made with an amber lager-style beer, to a Chipotle Raspberry sauce made with a dark heavy lager — even Jones’ beer mug styled packaging and labeling — exemplifies the character, creativity and the difficulty of moving forward with a great idea.
“I don’t think this would have happened without COMTEK — taking a home product … putting it on the shelf in six months, is not an easy process,” he said. “They are making it possible for our business idea.”
Turning a home based product into a commercial product is one of the hardest transitions for a first time entrepreneur, according to Jones. The recipe of the product takes the most time and effort to get right, but the contacts necessary to get the products on the shelves — bottle suppliers, packaging companies, graphic designers and promoters — are what make the business difficult to learn.
“After going through this process, I would have been completely un-prepared, and that would have cost me a lot of time and money,” he said. “If you don’t know what you are doing, it will cost you a lot of money. SSIC prepares you before working with a co-packer.”
— Story and photos by Michael Masucci, a Syracuse University graduate student in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications