When Fayth Preyer  decided it was time to fine-tune her recipes, she put up 275 jars of pickled goods. She went to work hand-packing and processing the jars – no more than six at a time – in the kitchen of her Portland home. The results of her labor went out to her friends and their feedback came back in.

Preyer is now pursuing the next steps for her fledgling business: licensing, lab testing for proper pH, building sales relationships and solidifying her business plan. If all goes well, Victory Canning will be offering its first three products – cucumber dill pickles, dilly beans and bread-and-butter pickles based on traditional recipes with her own twists –  through specialty markets this fall.

The significance of a strong business plan was further impressed upon Preyer during a workshop offered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The five-week “From Recipe to Market” series aims to help entrepreneurs like Preyer turn their ideas into viable specialty food businesses.

“I definitely can’t wing it,” said Preyer, who’s 33. “If I’m going to put the time and the energy and the money – my own savings – it’s important to figure out all the aspects.”

The series was created in response to a growing number of inquiries about starting home-based specialty food businesses. The first was held in Ellsworth in March 2007 and others followed in Skowhegan, Lisbon Falls and Machias.

About two dozen people are enrolled in the current series in Windham. Their product ideas range from beef jerky to barbecue sauce to potato doughnuts to pet treats that incorporate seaweed.

The interest in specialty foods is following the emphasis on local foods, said James McConnon, an extension business and economics specialist who led last week’s  workshop session. He said that consumers have retained that interest even with the onset of the recession. “We have seen generally increased interest in purchasing local products and supporting local economic activity,” he said.

The series includes discussions of product development, pricing, regulations and other aspects of running a food business. Participants can ask questions of a lawyer, an accountant and an insurance agent at one session and have a one-on-one consultation with a specialist at another. They also go to Orono to visit the university’s Dr. Matthew Highlands Food Pilot Plant, which can help entrepreneurs make the transition from cooking in their kitchens to commercial production.

Some come to the workshop with businesses that are already running and ideas for a new product. Others are in a more exploratory mode.

Vivian Page was looking into new products that her family’s farm, Deri Farm in North Yarmouth, can offer in addition to its community-supported agriculture program. The first ones would probably be products like pickles, jams and jellies and Page wanted to get the lay of the regulatory land for home-based kitchens.

“We’re looking at other value-added type things we could add for our customers and potential customers,” she said.

Andrew Pettingill, a Portland chef, has started his company and is now looking for a site for his gluten-free market and cafe, It’s Only Natural … GF.  There will be eat-in and to-go meals, baked goods and a line of soups, sauces and stocks.

“I’m trying to break the barrier for people who think gluten-free tastes terrible,” he said.

Preyer developed her business idea after starting a garden. Although her career has been in the food and restaurant businesses, the experience got her thinking about the challenges that small farms face. She eventually came to see pickling as a way to use some of the produce that small farms could not sell. Victory Canning will only use produce from small Maine farms.

“As I got closer to this idea and got closer to what I want to accomplish, having my own company seemed like the only way I could do this,” she said.
 
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: akim@pressherald.com