Rutgers Food Innovation Center: Think of us like a hotel... maybe you want to book us for a day, or a month
By Elaine Watson
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Our next stop was the Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC) in Bridgeton, NJ, a one-stop-shop for food and beverage manufacturers in the region and overseas, from aspiring entrepreneurs with promising ideas but short on cash and experience, to more established businesses looking to take their brands in a new direction, train staff or access investment capital.
Founded in 2001 as part of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) at Rutgers University, the FIC has - since 2008 - operated from a 23,000 sq ft food business incubation facility in Bridgeton offering advice and practical support on everything from product development to market research, sensory analysis, food labeling, and packaging development.
We’re like a college; we want to work with you, and help you to graduate so you can go it alone
It also houses a state-of-the-art USDA and FDA-inspected food processing facility that can be leased by the day, week, month or longer, enabling firms to produce commercial quantities of products in an affordable manner before they open facilities of their own or find contract manufacturers they can work with, said acting director Louis Cooperhouse, who has stints at Campbell Soup, ConAgra and Nestlé under his belt.
“We’re a shared use facility. Think of us like a hotel... maybe you want to book us for a day, or a month, or you want to be a longer-term tenant. We’ll make bread today, fried chicken tomorrow. We’re like a college; we want to work with you, and help you to graduate so you can go it alone.”
The FIC has worked with scores of innovative companies from gluten-free expert Dr. Schär USA, to entrepreneurial firms including Canada Enterprises LLC, the firm behind the fast-growing Jin+Ja brand (fresh ginger, green tea, cayenne pepper, mint & lemon), premium ketchup maker First Field Ketchup, cookie dough maker The FatBoy Cookie Company, Italian prepared food specialist The Flying Meatballs and ‘PaleoKit’ maker Steve’s Paleo Goods (beef jerky, raw nuts and dried fruits).
We’ll make bread today, fried chicken tomorrow
FIC has also been designated as a ‘Soft Landings’site for overseas companies looking to set up shop in the US by the National Business Incubation Association, due to its focus on international business attraction, the only food incubation facility in the world with this designation.
It is also the only operation in New Jersey to win a Small Business Association Growth Accelerator Fund award - $50,000 in cash - which will help it identify and then mentor promising food & beverage firms until they are ready to pitch to a network of angel investors and venture capital firms.
One of the most interesting projects it has been working on recently involves working with local firms to create value-added foodservice products made with locally-grown ingredients that meet the new standards for school lunches and snacks.
Today it’s all about shorter production runs, more flexible manufacturing facilities
So in his years working in the food industry and at the FIC, what key trends is Cooperhouse seeing?
One of the most exciting trends - but also the most challenging from an operational perspective - is the shift towards more niche products, and growing interest in freshly-prepared foods with a short shelf life, requiring more flexible manufacturing operations and more sophisticated distribution networks, he said.
And for an industry that has historically prided itself on churning out massive volumes from facilities designed to produce a handful of SKUs in the most efficient manner, this is hugely challenging, he added.
“Today it’s all about shorter production runs, more flexible manufacturing facilities, short shelf-life products and niche markets; things are getting far more complex.”
FIC facilities include:
Hot processing: Beverages, sauces, jams, jellies, soups/stews, hot fill entrees, condiments.