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Get a taste of CT at Friday's big food event

Suzie Binch, a customer at Walter Stewart’s Market, tries a sample from Fire Ox Foods during a product demo.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Suzie Binch, a customer at Walter Stewart’s Market, tries a sample from Fire Ox Foods during a product demo.

This Friday, the “Big Connecticut Food Event” will come to Yale to support food entrepreneurs. It’s part of a statewide effort to expand the profession — an effort that's proving to require a multipronged approach.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “CT food startups have a lot on their plates, but relief is on the way,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Erica, what is the “Big Connecticut Food Event?”

EP: The Big Connecticut Food Event is this Friday. And it's sort of the next step in a lot of efforts around the state to help food entrepreneurs get their businesses going and scale their businesses up. And what's going to happen at the event? There's going to be some panels, there's going to be some one-on-one coaching for food entrepreneurs with various types of experts. And there's gonna be a lot of delicious food samples.

WSHU: Now, you start off by looking into the sample of Kwame Asare. Could you tell us his story and how he got funding to get his product to the next level?

EP: Yeah, absolutely. So Kwame is one of several food entrepreneurs who I talked to for this story. He was born in Ghana, and on a trip back there with his father a few years ago, they kind of came up with the idea to start a family business kind of for their legacy and to help out the family. And they wanted to make what's known as Shito sauce, which is a very common savory spicy relish in Ghana that has distinctive West African flavors.

And Kwami had a sense that, you know, the American condiment market is huge, and he thought people would really like this. And he wanted to get in there and try his hand at selling this in the United States. So he did some research, there are a couple of incubator programs for food startups and food entrepreneurs around the state. And during those programs, there's one in Hartford called reSET, there's one in New Haven called CitySeed, they kind of walk you through all everything you need to know, to start to market your product and to get yourself out there.

WSHU: Part of that is fundraising, they provide some seed money to get you to the next level, right?

EP: In some cases, yeah. You learn several of these basic startup things. And then you have a pitch competition. And maybe in that pitch competition, you might be competing, pitching your product, and there's some judges there and you might be competing for a small amount of money, award money to help your business. So Kwame had a problem that's not unique to food entrepreneurs: his product was received very well in the market, and a lot of stores were interested in carrying it. And he had to figure out how to get more of it made.

They were originally using a shared commercial kitchen, there are a few of these around the state that food entrepreneurs can use, they sign up for a chunk of time and make their product and can it. And they're sharing that space with other companies. But once stores need, you know, pallets and pallets of your stuff, you have to find a bigger manufacturing facility and you've got to outsource that part of the process. And so, Kwame right now is struggling with finding the right fit, finding the right manufacturer, who will take him on and this is a that's one of a few challenges that food entrepreneurs in Connecticut face.

WSHU: So scaling up is a big problem. Now you say the Yale Center for Business and Environment is also involved in this. How exactly is it set up?

EP: Yeah, they're hosting the event that's going to be at Yale and they originally partnered with CT Next, which is a quasi public arm of Connecticut that funds innovation and entrepreneurship. They got together with a food business support group called CT Food Launchpad, this was a couple of years ago, and did something called the Entrepreneur Innovation Awards. That was a successful event.

They wanted to redo it and make the event itself bigger. And so this time around, it's the CT Food Launchpad, Yale and another group called Food’NBev Connect. So once I got into learning about sort of what food startups are going through in Connecticut, I also learned about a bunch of support organizations and consultancies and groups that are out there to help folks in that position and wanting to get a food business off the ground. So there really is kind of a growing and healthy ecosystem here in Connecticut to support these entrepreneurs.

WSHU: And that's interesting because I never thought of Connecticut as being an incubator for food startups. But you know, Pepperidge Farm started right here in Fairfield, Connecticut.

EP: Yeah, we've got a few big name brands that you don't always think about, you know, Bigelow Tea, Athletic Brewing Company. There are a number of pretty significant food businesses that launched out of Connecticut. And there are efforts to make this more of a thing here. So a lot of these kinds of support groups that I told you about that are offering services. But even the governor himself a few days ago, declared Connecticut the foodie capital of New England. So if he is out there saying it, maybe we should come to expect a little more in the next few years.

WSHU: And you also found out that a lot of people got started during the pandemic, right?

EP: Right. So that was an interesting little detail I learned, which is there are a lot of people out there, probably a lot of people listening to this, who have tried and true recipes that their friends love that they've been making for years. And a lot of these folks during the pandemic, they had a little downtime, and they said, 'I wonder if I should market this, if I should start a business,' and they toyed with some recipes. I mean, Kwame is among them, he and his sister-in-law were working on their sauce recipes during the pandemic and kind of nailing that down. And several of the other businesses I talked to said yeah, during the last few years, the number of startup food brands in Connecticut, has almost tripled. So there's a lot of folks out there that are trying to get something going.

WSHU: This big food event is happening this coming Friday, right?

EP: It's this Friday. Yep. And I guess if you look up “Big Food Event Connecticut,” that'd be the way to find it, it’s a little bit straightforward. So you should be able to track it down.

WSHU: And can anyone just show up and taste some of this stuff?

EP: I believe you have to register. So I would get out there, get online and check it out and see if you can sign up and get over to Yale on Friday.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.