Features

A Taste for Success

By Katie Pratt
Photography by Stephen Patton

Itís the dream of many food industry entrepreneurs to see their product on the shelves of a regional or national grocery chain, but getting there is not so simple. In addition to the obvious hurdles of food safety regulations and production costs, things like market research, taste comparisons, process validation, shelf life studies and labeling considerations will need to be determined and completed before products can line those shiny, white shelves.

Entrepreneurs can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars accomplishing these necessary and important steps with private companies across the United States, or they can come to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. For the past three years, specialists with the College’s Food Systems Innovation Center have helped large and small, new and established entrepreneurs fulfill these same requirements at a much lower cost. The center places particular emphasis on helping Kentucky-based food firms develop commercial quality products.

“The center is filling an enormous need,” said Tim Woods, UK agricultural economist. “There are a lot of clients that are farmers market based that are looking to ramp up to the next level, and the center gives us the opportunity to deliver a whole suite of educational training programs to help them get there.”

Since it was established in 2010 with funds from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund, the center has served more than 520 clients, with the number increasing each year. While there is an emphasis placed on helping Kentucky-based companies, companies across the United States have used the resource.

 

(l-r) UKAg's Melissa Newman, Winston Industries' Chef Barry Yates, and founder Winston L. Shelton have collaborated on several process validation studies of innovative restaurant equipment that could change the food industry.

(l-r) UKAg's Melissa Newman, Winston Industries' Chef Barry Yates, and founder Winston L. Shelton have collaborated on several process validation studies of innovative restaurant equipment that could change the food industry.

 

Science and Innovation

Though the center is young, College specialists have been offering their expertise to companies for many years.

Winston Industries had working relationships with specialists even before the center’s formation. The Louisville company employs about 150 people and gained initial prominence for developing the fryers used to cook KFC chicken.

In addition to the fryers, they’ve developed and marketed several other breakthrough technologies in restaurant equipment including CVap ovens. CVap is the company’s technology that allows oven operators to control air and food moisture temperatures. Controlling both temperatures allows foods to reach and maintain their optimal level of doneness and texture for a longer period of time. CVaps are used around the world by the food service industry from fast food to professional chefs to school cafeterias.

For the past five years, Chef Barry Yates, director of innovation at Winston Industries, has brought the company’s CVap ovens to Melissa Newman, the center’s director and UK associate professor of food microbiology and food safety. They’ve collaborated on several process validation studies.

“I think it’s one of the more unique relationships between a university and a business across the country,” Yates said. “They’re about innovation, and we’re about innovation. They’re about science. We’re about science.”

The first project Yates and Newman worked on was validating the safe processing of proteins in the CVap ovens. Currently, they are in the midst of a process validation project to determine the oven temperature needed for food to reach an optimal level of quality and doneness and maintain federal food safety standards.
“Process validation is critical to where we’re going now, because we’re hoping to change the food code,” Yates said. “I need a nonbiased, third party that uses scientific methods to validate what we’re doing is safe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is not going to pay any attention to us on this until we can bring them verified third party data.”

Newman agreed. “For a study like this, the USDA is going to want to see that you’re not perpetuating the growth of bacteria, you’re not making a product that’s on the edge of being dangerous, and that product is foolproof to the point that individuals who are new or untrained in the food service industry can safely operate it.”

One-Stop Shop

The center has allowed College specialists to streamline their services into a one-stop shop for established and budding entrepreneurs. As the center’s coordinator, Angela Anandappa is usually the first person a potential client will speak to. She helps clients go through the required permitting processes, performs nutritional evaluations, and initiates discussions with the proper UK specialists.

“Every project is customized to meet the needs of the individual clients,” Anandappa said.

Newman conducts shelf life and food safety studies. UK meat scientist Gregg Rentfrow specializes in meats and sensory panels. Woods and fellow agricultural economist Wuyang Hu perform market studies and help clients with all aspects of marketing. Joe O’Leary, UK extension associate professor in Animal and Food Sciences, examines preparation methods of canned products and determines whether they meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration food safety regulations, a review that is required before products can go on the market. O’Leary is one of only a handful of FDA process reviewers in the state.

Volunteers take part in a sensory panel, one of the client services the UK Food Systems Innovation Center provides. The red light neutralizes participants' visual perception of the product, so they won't be influenced by the way it looks.

Professional and Convenient

Paul Inclan from Bourbon Country Products in Louisville is another of the center’s clients. In 1991, the company took over production of Maker’s Mark Gourmet Sauce. Since then, it has worked with Heaven Hill Distilleries and Wild Turkey to produce various sauces infused with the different bourbons. These products are sold across the United States, mostly in specialty stores, and are beginning to go international with the soaring popularity of bourbon.

The company’s partnership with the bourbon parent companies is vital to its success. When Wild Turkey came under new ownership, the new owners wanted a taste comparison of the company’s Wild Turkey bourbon, habanero, and gourmet sauces to several other similar sauces on the market.

“There were several companies that would perform the service in California and New York, but everything was very expensive,” Inclan said.

While he doesn’t remember exactly how he found UK’s Food Systems Innovation Center, he was very pleased with the results of the sensory panel study conducted by a Rentfrow-led team. So were the Wild Turkey owners. Inclan said he would definitely use the center again.

“It’s here in Kentucky, very convenient, and very professional,” he said. “The fee for the study was nominal and very doable.”

Using the sensory lab, analysts can explore product development questions for a wide-range of products, including fresh foods, processed foods, and beverages. The sensory lab underwent renovations in 2011 to make the facility state-of-the-art, including new lighting, new paint designed not to influence participants’ sensory perceptions, air- and light-tight wall panels, and iPads to record participants’ responses. The technology upgrades allow center personnel to compile study results in a matter of days and quickly get them in the hands of their clients.

“The sensory lab is an excellent place to have a final test for a product to help you make a good marketing decision,” Anandappa said. “The results can help people market their product a particular way, or it may even help them determine whether to move forward with a product.”

Not only do the researchers conduct studies, but they perform many other services including educational training with programs like Better Process Control School, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), and MarketReady. Many times, these programs are taught in conjunction with personnel from county and state health departments and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

While clients vary greatly in size, industry, experience, and need, they all dream of creating and marketing a successful product. The UK Food Systems Innovation Center is here to help them line grocery shelves with the best, safest product possible.