A Taste for "Venture"
Vermont's food-business incubator makes a controversial move, from Fairfax to Hardwick
Not everyone is happy that Hardwick is the new site of the Vermont Food Venture Center.
Hardwick is a little town that’s developing a glitzy reputation as a foodie hamlet — just ask fans of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who stopped off there in September to film an episode of his show “Emeril Green.” But if you live in Chittenden County or central or southern Vermont, Hardwick means something else: a long drive. That’s why not everyone is happy with its selection as the new site of the Vermont Food Venture Center.
“It’s a huge mistake,” says Cathy Bacon of the planned move by the 13-year-old kitchen-incubator operation, currently located in Fairfax. “Hardwick is so inaccessible that putting the Venture Center there will be a real disservice to producers outside the Northeast Kingdom.”
Bacon, a Randolph-based producer of flavored maple syrups and vinegars, isn’t sitting around griping. She’s started her own food venture center in Randolph, under the corporate heading of Freedom Foods, for the local industry’s post-start-up companies.
Bacon developed her Hillside Lane Farm line of products at the current Venture Center in Fairfax over the course of an 11-year affiliation. Like all its clients, she paid a yearly membership fee as well as an hourly charge to use the center’s equipment and access its expertise. Bacon says the facility’s manager, Brian Norder, was of great assistance as she built her business — but now, motivated by the planned move to Hardwick, she’s ready to try it on her own. Meanwhile, some of the center’s current clients insist they will drive extra distances to use the modern, much larger space that’s due to be completed about a year from now.
The Venture Center has nurtured more than 100 enterprises since 1996, Norder calculates. A study found that about half were still in business five years after their launch, he says.
Linda Fountain-Provost, co-owner of Profoun Salsa, says she turned to the Venture Center for help after learning from the state health department a few years ago that she couldn’t lawfully continue to cook up commercial quantities of salsa in her home in Vergennes. “Brian talked us through everything we needed to know,” Fountain-Provost recalls. Since she started preparing her salsa in the Fairfax plant, it’s reached the shelves of 80 stores in Vermont and upstate New York.
Fountain-Provost says she’ll definitely drive from Vergennes to Hardwick, “even though the travel is outrageous,” because the Venture Center gives her capabilities she could never replicate at home. She hopes to become more efficient in her production process, however, so that she will need to use the center only once or twice a month rather than weekly, as is currently the case.
Marsha Phillips pauses from pouring maple-sugar-dusted nuts into a dump pan at the Venture Center to express her own appreciation for what the facility offers. Phillips, owner of the Mapled Nut Co., says she’s able to process 25 pounds of nuts in one session at the center, as compared with four pounds at her home in Montgomery. “I’ll certainly be going to Hardwick,” she says.
Norder himself, a former food-and-beverage services manager at Smugglers’ Notch, confesses to having initially opposed the move to Hardwick when the center’s owner, the Economic Development Council of Northern Vermont, was weighing siting options in 2006. At that time, the Caledonia County town was just beginning to emerge as a nexus of agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship, Norder notes. He worried then, he recounts, that Hardwick would prove an inconvenient locale for many of the center’s clients.
A consultant’s study had in fact recommended that the center be situated somewhere in the Burlington-Barre corridor, with an old farm in Duxbury identified as a particularly promising possibility. But many of the center’s board members argued in favor of moving to an industrial park in Hardwick, which had started to attract small food-production companies such as Vermont Soy and the now-defunct Vermont Milk Co. Other ag enterprises have sprouted nearby, including Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott and the Jasper Hill Farm cheese- making operation in Greensboro.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy has been marketing Hardwick as a New England ag hotspot. A New York Times article and the “Emeril Green” appearance reflect the success of its efforts.
Norder eventually came to share the view of Economic Development Council director Connie Stanley Little, who describes Hardwick as “the best place for the center to be because it has established such a strong culture for ag development.”
Norder and Stanley Little also agree that the planned move involves more than just a 40-mile geographic shift. In Hardwick, they say, the Venture Center will focus more on basic food stuffs than on specialty items, which have accounted for most of the production at the Fairfax facility. Some of those upset about the relocation are based in the Burlington area, which is home to “the more affluent group” that makes and consumes specialty foods, Norder observes.
New clients from the Northeast Kingdom will probably step forward to replace those who drop out when the center relocates farther from Vermont’s major population centers, Norder adds. He notes that 33 current and potential producers attended a recent Venture Center workshop in Greensboro. Such sessions in the Burlington and Montpelier areas never draw more than 15 participants, Norder says.
The Hardwick plant will also include production nodes absent in Fairfax. Meat will be cut, ground, cooked and smoked at the new facility, which will likewise feature a dairy processing unit and a raw foods packing room. Jasper Hill Farm has signed on as an anchor tenant at the Hardwick plant, where it will offer four- to six-month internships for aspiring cheese makers, Norder adds. Vermont Soy has also agreed to lease space in the $3 million center, which is being built mostly with federal money procured by Patrick Leahy, a senior member of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture and Appropriations committees.
No one disputes that the Fairfax facility has become outmoded and downright dilapidated. It’s housed in the center of town in a 100-year-old clapboard building that looks its age — and then some. The sagging two-story structure has served as a Masonic temple, a general store and the home of Gérard Haute Cuisine, a cooking company owned by Vermont bread maker extraordinaire Gérard Rubaud.
Producers must now make do with roughly 3600 square feet of usable space — about one-quarter of what will be available to them in Hardwick. The mostly refurbished equipment at the current site includes a foot-pumped lift cart for moving pallets from a narrow loading dock. Bottles and jars must be placed one at a time beneath an automatic filler that lacks a conveyor belt. Many of the aging machines malfunction from time to time, and Norder finds himself whacking them back into working order, sometimes with the help of a local plumber and electrician.
“Brian’s done an incredible job of patching that place,” observes Fountain-Provost, the salsa maker. “To say it’s falling apart is putting it mildly. We sometimes think we’re going to fall through the floor.”
The center was renovated a few years ago, but doing so again “isn’t something that would make much sense,” Norder says as he leads a visitor from room to room in a space bearing little resemblance to a modern food-production plant. Appearances notwithstanding, the level of food science at the Venture Center is quite high, Norder says. He actually reckons it to be “unmatched not only in Vermont but in most of the country.” Norder works with consultants from Cornell and the University of Vermont to advise center clients on the chemistry of production. In one case, for instance, he persuaded a producer to switch from liquid to dry honey to speed up and improve the cooking process.
The Fairfax facility contains some equipment that fledgling food producers can’t find elsewhere. Jeff Mitchell built the Green Mountain Co-Pack factory in South Burlington, which serves many specialty food businesses around the state, but he still relies on the blast freezer at the Venture Center in Fairfax, where his company got its start. Norder explains that the walk-in unit rapidly lowers food temperatures to minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit, enhancing the quality of whatever’s being frozen.
Mitchell says “it remains to be determined” whether he’ll make the trip to Hardwick, which he describes as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he acknowledges he’s not likely to acquire a blast freezer of his own.
Jim Harrison, manager of the Vermont Specialty Food Association, suggests that “moving the center further from Chittenden County will create issues for some who use it now and for some others who might have used it but who we don’t even know about yet.” If a do-over were possible, Harrison adds, “I’d love to see them pick an area closer to Chittenden County.”
Fairfax itself “isn’t exactly on the edge of downtown Burlington,” notes Helen Labun-Jordan, food policy administrator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Norder has, in any event, done “a lot of outreach all over Vermont, and that will continue once they’re in Hardwick,” Labun-Jordan adds.
Norder and some other Vermont food professionals suggest that Burlington’s Intervale would be the ideal site for a Chittenden County incubator. Such an initiative has long been discussed by city officials and local entrepreneurs, but it hasn’t progressed beyond the vision stage.
An effort to start a food venture center somewhere in Rutland County is much further advanced. “We see it as completely complementary to what’s happening in Hardwick,” says Tara Kelly, whose Rutland Area Farm and Food Link organization is working on the proposal in collaboration with the Rutland Redevelopment Authority. The plan is still at the preliminary stage, Kelly points out. The actual opening of a venture center in that part of Vermont lies at least three years in the future, she conjectures.
In Randolph, Bacon’s production plant is already up and running. Because she knew she wouldn’t make the two-plus-hour drive to Hardwick, Bacon built the 7800-square-foot facility, which opened in March. It now employs 11 Vermonters who assist more than 50 start-up producers from around the state and beyond in preparing, packaging and marketing specialty foods.
When the production capacity of food entrepreneurs grows and their attitudes evolve, the Venture Center becomes less useful to them, Bacon suggests. She finds that “it’s great for people who want to do smaller lines and who want to be actively involved with production on an ongoing basis. But for those trying to figure out how to take a day off, we’re a step in that direction, because we can help train staff.”
Bacon encourages others around the state to do as she’s done in launching a venture center of her own. “All sorts of small producers are contacting me,” she says. “There’s a really strong need for something like this.”