Thursday, 20 September 2012

FCC: Community Food Enterprises in Central Ohio

This week's colloquium presentation also included a sampling, courtesy of Aimée's Blue Ribbon Spices.
This week's Food and Culture Colloquium session brought together a diverse array of experiences and interests in the form of a panel organised by Stephanie Hunt-Theophilus, Program Coordinator of the Burton D. Morgan Liberal Arts & Entrepreneurship Education Program. The panel, which followed a brief overview of this week's readings (linked toward the end of this post), circled back to many consistent themes, of which a very common one is the fact that here in central Ohio, it's all about lifting everyone up wherever they are in the process. These are very pertinent words indeed as we witnessed the convergence of entrepreneurs who had much to share about their trials and successes, lessons learned and wisdom gained, and dreams and hopes, in the shared story of community food enterprises.

But first, Stephanie shared with us her story and Appalachian food culture. In addition, she shared that her own passion for entrepreneurship was heavily influenced by her grandmother, an entrepreneur who saw the potential and opportunity in using the available land around her to make a living through food. It is with this context that Stephanie transitioned to and summarised this week's suggested readings. Among her main foci were the 15 business strategies used by community food entreprises (CFEs), of which her grandmother's business exemplified, and the 7 community impacts of CFEs of which solidarity also added to the common themes of the overall session.

From there, we turned to our panel as Stephanie introduced each one to the stage. First up was Megan Luna of Columbus-based Luna Burger which sells vegan (one of which is gluten-free) veggie burgers (about which I have previously tasted and written). According to Megan, Luna Burger places particular emphasis on local food and their contribution to and hope in the local food movement. Now in 11 states, the company continues to grow, though it is important note that money goes back to the farmers and the economic cycle: "it's not just about us making veggie burgers, but that we're connected communities in meaningful ways." As for the products themselves, the company's burgers are created "Slow Food" style-- mixed, shaped and packaged by hand.

Next, we heard from former Denison employee Kate Djupe who is currently in the process of seeking investors for her up and coming "kitchen incubator" known as The Comissary on Town. Emphasizing in particular her continued education of what it takes to run a small business and "steep learning curve," Kate's dream is to provide the space and start-up resources for farmers and small food services to develop. As the company grows (in her community of Franklington), many people are able to imprint their own motives on the space; the investors are certainly doing just that, as these are folks who "aren't investing because they expect a 150% return on their investment, but rather because they believe in the business" and the work Kate is doing to support the local economy.

Granville-based Aimée Williams of Aimée's Blue Ribbon Spices was third on the panel and shared the story of her business's growth, from the encouragement of her family and friends to think about selling her spices (the first of which was Dilly Garlic and was among those she brought to sample) to her now 90 different spice blends which can be found in small markets and regional Whole Foods locations. All of Aimée's blends are gluten-free and MSG-free, and are packaged by her and in her family kitchen.

Last, but not least, was Teresa Peters, co-owner of The Going Green Store, which of the four is located the closest to campus (909 River Rd). An "eco-general" store, The Going Green Store prides itself on, among other components, its relationships with its vendors (some of whom who sell their products through the store as a stepping stone to larger retailers), its emphasis on selling (food) products sourced within 50 miles of Licking County, and its philanthropy work within the community. Currently living with, and open about, cancer, the relationship between health and the environment makes this particular venture a personal one for Teresa. It is certainly evident in my interactions with her and the staff of The Going Green Store that all of them are incredibly invested in their work; as all four panelists more or less made clear, being invested isn't oftentimes an option but rather a necessity if you want the business to survive.

After each panelist's turn at the mic, and before a concluding sampling of Aimée's spice blends, the rest of the time was open to the audience for questions which covered a wide array of inquiries including the challenges of purchasing and storing items in bulk, competition against larger suppliers, the importance of education and professional development, and the need to not only educate self (i.e., the entrepreneurs) but the consumers and general public. Throughout Central Ohio, especially, we are experiencing a true renaisance as it pertains to food, which is hopefully continuing to be evident throughout the course of the colloquium.

Suggested readings for this session:
"Executive Summary" and “CFE Book - Introduction and Methodology” (Community Food Enterprise, 2009)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here.

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