(NECN: Jack Thurston, Hardwick, Vt.) - The new Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick is 15,000 square feet of industrial kitchen space, with big professional ovens, mixers, and other tools small food companies would need to grow. "It's very difficult to go from your home kitchen to a major market," said businessman Andrew Meyer.
Meyer's brand, Vermont Soy, started in the state's previous incubator space in Fairfax, Vt., which the Hardwick center replaces. "It allowed us to experiment with products, take them to the next level, commercialize them, and introduce them to the marketplace," Meyer remembered.
Vermont Soy now has its own large manufacturing center. It sells a growing line of tofu, organic soy milk, and other products across New England and beyond.
Hourly rental fees give start-ups access to the USDA-approved kitchens. Monique Duckworth, who sells spicy fried pepper chips called Deano's Jalapenos, says the knowledge that comes from working near other food producers helped her find new markets. "A lot of it has to do with who you know and being able to communicate with one another and to share information," she said.
The nearly $4-million center was paid for with a mix of federal and state money, and grants. The expectation in Hardwick is the investment will pay off in job creation. "We do have a diversified economy," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. "Agriculture has always been a part of it. But it will continue, as we all know, only if it's innovative."
Economic development leaders say the venture center should be a model for other states looking to add value to farm products and capitalize on a growing appreciation for high-quality foods. Who knows? The space may even turn out Vermont's next Ben & Jerry's.
"The next success story is probably happening right now," Meyer said.