History & Process: A Food Business Road map Introduction

What is food Business Road map and why build one?

It’s not uncommon that after listening to loving descriptions of savory, sweet and inspiring food business ideas that many Farmers Market or Shared Kitchen managers end up offering a first glimpse into the reality of food entrepreneurship.

For me, when “mapping out” the future, I try to give bite sized summary of items as an initial overview so those reaching out for maybe the first time since a business idea aren't overwhelmed.

This most always includes:

  1. Regulations and requirements not just for their Kitchen/Market, but also for registration as a business and for processing/offering/selling safe food.

  2. Suggestions on which license applies and how to find more information.

  3. Resources in the community who provide entrepreneurial assistance.

  4. My own forwarding of business resource links and items depending on the type of business..

This project came from one of the resources that supports me before I can support entrepreneurs: The Network of Incubation Kitchen Managers Facebook Group. When someone posted a resource road map they created for food entrepreneurs, I immediately wanted one for myself but doubted I would have time or ability to build it alone.

You can see that roadmapping project created by the North Carolina Center for Environmental Farming Systems here.

This post is an introduction to how a small group of people are meeting to develop a resource to be used all over Minnesota in hopes it will be inspirational to someone else a shade green with envy over resources created in another state.

Where A Resource Doesn't Exist -

Find Co-ChampionS

Through lucky timing and the support of food community partners in Minnesota (see end notes) I’ve watched this coveting of that map morph into something soon-to-be tangible. This summary is my way of reflecting on how this happened and what we’ve done to date. Ideally, this will help others create a similar guide where it may not exist in their state.

In my opinion, the creation of a Minnesota Food Business Roadmap has become a reality because of several reasons:

  1. Willingness of state regulators to create content that is accessible for entrepreneurs

  2. Proof of need through studies on areas of improvement for farmers and processors in our region

  3. Connections and networks that aren’t afraid to reach out to one another to collaborate or share their internal content

  4. Resources from state agencies to host meetings and publish end content of the project on their website

It’s worth highlighting two important takeaways that could make or break another group’s attempt to replicate this concept:

  • When there is a high-level champion to bring stakeholders to the table and listen to what needs to be created, your solution/idea can grow legs. (Which, admittedly is frustrating if you don’t have that).

  • Second, adapting the idea to the needs of the community through direct community stakeholder feedback and knowledge is equally important and ensures the end product addresses the real needs of the target audience.

Since November when I offhandedly asked the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) if they were going to create anything this simplified for distribution to the public, we've met monthly to do just that. Various experts and representatives from our state have since been invited to the table and are contributing their advice and resources as well.

The overall idea is simple: let’s share what we already have and use it in our programs in hopes that we can make something without duplicating efforts; something bigger than our own programming that can be used across the state by other managers and resource providers who have "here's where you're at, and where you need to be" conversations with soon-to-be food business owners.

This week, our group organized the way the map “navigates” through the areas we’ve identified and adapted from the original North Carolina version (image posted above). Soon a basic graphics design will be started as we continue on the content development. You can view a draft of our map points as a pdf via Google Drive here.

Ideally the draft graphics and a discussion of the intended content will be piloted to entry level market representatives (farmers market managers, shared kitchen managers, etc) in March at the Minnesota Farmers Market Annual Conference. I’m excited for this discussion and hope to give more updates once we have more to share.

Stay tuned for another update in March after our pilot test or read on below for a deeper discussion of the timeline of how we got all this going.

Project Progression Details:

Below is an outline on how this idea progressed to date, showing how a connected and able champion can be to capture momentum and move a project along quickly (for this, it was the Department of Agriculture’s Brian Erickson - MN Food Business Assistance & Market Development and Lacy Levine -  Food and Feed Safety Division):

Inception of Idea: September 2016

At the end of September in 2016, I met with Brian Erickson of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Brian oversees the listing of shared kitchens and other marketing efforts for food processors in the state. Our “get to know your work” discussion coincided with my growing experiences helping entrepreneurs navigate the depth of starting their own businesses. In a matter of several weeks...

  • Brian connected me to Lacy Levine and others at the Department of Agriculture to discuss how we might identify and gather existing resources into one central document.

  • We also agree there should be a guide by the MDA for food processors to have a checklist preparing them for licensing meetings with an inspector. (MDA is separately creating the latter and I can’t wait to see it and offer it to potential kitchen tenants.)


October 2016

  • Brian and Lacy identified other organizations who have also created initiatives to support farmers and processors as they navigate regulations and invite them to hear about the idea and brainstorm if sharing resources in a central location would be feasible or useful.

  • The first meeting is informative with a discussion of findings of previous studies and familiarization with your business goals combined with hopefulness of what this roadmap could accomplish.

  • Participants were MDA staff in various roles, Representative from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), Jane Jewett from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), whose previous research validated the need for a resource like this, and myself.

  • A soft timeline of development of the resource and pilot testing on Farmers Market Managers is created by the end of this meeting.

November 2017:

  • Organizations share industry programs they leverage or their own products and offer thoughts on how this roadmap theme can be adapted for our own state based on our own experiences.

December 2017:

  • The Minnesota Department of Health joins our working group to learn how they can add input and value to the project.

  • Working group participants review the information shared by others, identify missing content or additional resources needed, and invite new participants to contribute to the project.

  • Missing links are identified where some content cannot be shared or isn’t yet created. (Generally in areas where a manager or business assistance organization might verbally talk an entrepreneur through that topic.)

  • Discussion of creating these resources and who has ability to do is left open.

  • Several out of state organizations are identified as supporting and holding of this information but unable to share for distribution as this is a revenue stream for their departments.


Endnotes On Collaboration:

Since starting this site as a way to convey the span of my work, I find myself repeating the same two observations when I reflect on the food community of the Twin Cities: willingness to share credit and willingness to collaborate.

This isn’t to say my time in Chicago didn’t have that. I go back regularly - in part to stay connected to the food system there, as well as to think about how we still support one another through sharing challenges and exchanging found solutions or resources. However, I’m excited about how this current project represents what I think could be (and is) emulated by other regions. My observations are admittedly my own and I can’t vouch for how complete they are, but I hear over and over how in some areas the resource holders are willing to converse, and in others they seem against any investment towards their success and even seem to fear anything new outside of the world in which they’ve been trained to regulate.

Regardless of the level of support, there could be a secondary conversation about the need for nonprofit and community based entities to vie for the same funding sources and as a result guard their own expertise or resources for fear that their value will be diminished through collaboration.

An idea like this one is only as good as the resources that can carry it forward, so if both the state or local agencies and the community based nonprofits are unable to share... it seems like a large amount of effort on one champion, which doesn’t seem sustainable.

While I’m doing this work in my free time, I would not have made this resource on my own. I recognize that. It is because of state employees who are compensated and care. They are paid to make sense of these systems, to try and make things better. This willingness, the ability to be excited instead of scared about feedback from someone on the front lines is tremendously important. I don’t have an answer for how to replicate it across state lines, that can be someone else’s free time project. But it’s worth exploring and holds so much potential, don’t you think?