LSU AgCenter Food Incubator sees tenants from start-up to store shelves

Cooking up business

The LSU Agricultural Center Food Incubator has been in operation for less than a year, but it already has helped most of its tenants get products in Whole Foods Market, said Gaye M. Sandoz, who heads up the incubator on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus.

A veteran of the food processing business, who until last year ran the state’s other food business incubator, Edible Enterprises in Norco, Sandoz attributes much of the new incubator’s success to Luis Espinoza, whose background is in chemical engineering and food processing.

“We are extremely fortunate to have one of the brightest food scientists that I have ever worked with employed by the incubator,” she said of the Hondurus native.

“He has assisted most of our tenants in formulating all-natural products which got into Whole Foods,” she noted. “He also is hands-on with our tenants teaching them correct processing methods for quality issues and safety as well. … (He) sets us apart from any other food incubator.”

Espinoza said he trains new tenants “on our equipment to smooth the transition from small kitchen to larger processing equipment, which is intimidating for most of them. As a food scientist I adapt recipes to be produced in our equipment … I also provide research and development services for the tenants and many other clients that search the Food Incubator for this purpose.”

In other words, said John S. Russin, vice chancellor for the LSU AgCenter, the incubator helps emerging Louisiana food companies through the “million details between concept and conception” of a new product.

The incubator assists companies to “survive and grow during the start-up period by providing clients with business support, services and resources,” the incubator’s website says.

“The unique experience with the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator is that the businesses will have access to our Food Science Department’s services,” the website says.

The initial idea for the incubator “came from a conversation I had with Vice President for Agriculture Bill Richardson about 11/2 years ago,” Russin said. “Richardson is an entrepreneur at heart, an horizon-type thinker when it comes to agriculture enterprise.”

After talking with Richardson, Russin toured the Norco facility and brought Sandoz on board the fledgling LSU project.

He and Sandoz were tasked with determining what the incubator would look like, “how to develop it, what client services we envisioned, how it would work into the fabric of the university, how to manage clients, charge for services and who would provide services.”

They also realized “anyone can have a stove. We needed product conceptualization and then development,” Russin said. “We needed someone with expertise in food science.”

Espinoza, who finished his Ph.D. in food science in June, was hired, and the whole enterprise launched last summer.

“It’s everything we hoped it would be,” Russin said. “Those who know food expect it to grow.”

The incubator has 15 active clients, with 20 waiting and another 20 interested, Espinoza said.

One of the most successful tenants, Richard Hanley, 29, has placed his Sensation salad dressing in nearly 100 Louisiana grocery stores.

When Hanley began bottling his dressing at home, he realized he needed to find a kitchen that met state and federal standards, he said.

He tried to cook his recipe in restaurants or food trucks before first joining the kitchen incubator in Norco, then moving to the LSU incubator when it opened.

“I’m able to kick start this food idea five years ahead of its time,” he said.

Last year Hanley produced 40,000 bottles of dressing. This year he plans to triple that.

“The idea has to come from them,” the food scientist said. “We just help them.”

The tenants also can call on LSU’s microbiology lab. Marlene James in the Food Sciences Department helps them with the nutritional analysis needed for product labels.

“We enforce to them the recipes will stay here,” Espinoza said. “If we use some technology on the product, we share in any profits.”

It is hoped their tenants will eventually take their products to a co-packer, but it’s “almost impossible to find a co-packer for a small company,” Sandoz said. “It costs $10,000 to $20,000 to walk into a co-packer.”

Russin added, “Every client has very shallow pockets.”

Having enough room for all the tenants is a juggling act, they said. Tenants’ production sessions are scheduled for at least four hours, then they clean up and sanitize between clients.

After successfully bottling and selling his Sensation salad dressing, Hanley approached the incubator staff about his new creation, a seasonal strawberry vinaigrette.

To be successful, Hanley knew he needed help extending the product’s shelf life. A previous batch had turned brown instead of the desired pinkish hue after a few weeks.

“It still tasted fine,” Hanley said. “It just wasn’t sexy.”

He didn’t want to introduce any artificial ingredients and he wanted to use as many Louisiana ingredients as possible.

“Richard has a clear vision of his line of products,” Espinoza said. “He wants to have Louisiana everywhere.”

So Espinoza experimented with Hanley’s recipe, starting with the farm that produced the strawberries. They researched the different ways the berries could be picked, cleaned and processed.

“We spent countless hours on different developments, trying different sugars and cooking techniques, trying different ingredients,” Hanley said.

Hanley’s new recipe strawberry vinaigrette is now on grocery store shelves.

“Without a place like this … not only is it a food incubator, it’s Luis and it’s food science and the formulation,” Hanley said. “That’s very unique from any other place I can find with that level of expertise and knowledge.”

He also has high praise for Sandoz.

“She was my wingman,” Hanley said. “I call her the shelf genie because she truly helped me get my idea to something that was real and on my first shelf.”

To learn more about the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator, contact Sandoz at (225) 578-7213 or gsandoz@agcenter.lsu.edu or go to LSUAgCenter.com.

Advocate staff reporter Kyle Peveto contributed to this story.