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Purpose Prize Fellow 2015
Career entrepreneur helps food and farm entrepreneurs develop artisanal food businesses that engage people with disabilities in culinary work.
I’m a startup guy. I love creating new markets and new products.
Years ago, I was running my first business while raising my kids. I could choose my hours, so I volunteered at meal programs and homeless shelters, along with my kids, who saw firsthand how commerce and community mix together. I loved passing that on.
After I sold my last business, I took a sabbatical. My daughter knew of a nonprofit in a rural county that needed help with economic development. They wanted a major auto plant, but the local opportunity was clearly food and agriculture – tons of family farms were tucked between the hills. Most were under stress.
In Wisconsin, a third of our crops are wasted. Small farmers can’t sell their cosmetically imperfect produce. We needed to find homes for their food. I decided to figure out how to do contract food manufacturing at an artisanal scale.
I had heard of “incubator” kitchens, which rent commercial state-certified kitchens by the hour. I also learned about a center for people with disabilities that was building one nearby. They began construction, and I put my life savings into supporting their venture. We’ve been running together at full speed ever since.
- Supports the work of a facility owned and operated by a center for people with disabilities that serves 175 people, including many trained to work in the food industry.
- Connects over 400 family farms and local food producers to new markets, saving and selling tons of food that would otherwise go to waste.
- Provides local food and local production services to entrepreneurs, farm families, schools and institutions.
Small family farms sell us their fruit and produce at good market prices. We keep the food farm-identified, stabilize it for year-round use, and offer it to chefs, restaurant networks and institutions. Then, the family farm can be featured on the menu. Or, we can make and package custom recipes for commercial sale. We train food and farm entrepreneurs and walk them through all the parts of the business, including creating a “recipe plan” and a budget.
No matter where they live, they can run their own food company simply by asking us to make X quantities of their product. Our staff does what we do best: Make food. The farmers and entrepreneurs do what they do best: sell their product with passion. During our first year, we saved 50,000 pounds of local produce.
The heart of this venture is collaboration with small but operationally brilliant businesses. One guy’s got the trucks, the other has the freezers. Everybody’s going to make a little and nobody’s going to make a killing, and we’re going to do this together. We all need a purpose beyond profit.
Our culinary staff makes the food but they also train people with disabilities on the culinary work, labeling and order fulfillment. It’s the best peer group I’ve ever worked with.
One entrepreneur started with us at 30 cases of his barbeque sauce; in 2015, we produced thousands of cases, and he opened a new restaurant, creating 28 local jobs. We’re working with a Vietnam vet who learned a tamale recipe from his great-grandparents on the Mississippi Delta. He’s 72 years old.
I spent my career building creative business solutions for problems no one wanted to tackle. My encore doesn’t seem like work to me. It’s the beginning of the best work I will ever do.