February 29, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Maine stovetop entrepreneurs share and share alliance

Small operators looking to make it on a larger scale are getting a hand from a group of experienced veterans who have been there, done that.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Lucy’s Granola is made by Lucy Benjamin in East Blue Hill.

Courtesy photo

20120224_SoupNuts
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Shannon Bissonnette, with guidance from the Maine Food Producers Alliance, is dramatically stepping up production of her Better Than Average Jams.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

COMING UP

HERE ARE SOME upcoming events sponsored by the Maine Food Producers Alliance: 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT FORUM at the Governor Hill Mansion, Augusta, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 20. $25 registration fee. Brings food producers together with grocers, merchants and service providers.

MEET & GREET workshop on financing the growth of your food business at MaineStream Finance in Bangor, in conjunction with Eastern Maine Development Corp., 5 to 7 p.m. April 26. Free. Register at mainefoodproducers.com

A DATE HAS NOT yet been set for this year's summit. For more information, go to

mainefoodproducers.com

.

"Everybody learned a heck of a lot about cardboard – not only how to keep your costs down on your packaging, but what types of substrate are the best to protect your product for shipment and that sort of thing," Cote said. "That was really a very worthwhile and beneficial tour for our members, because they got to know a lot of things they didn't know before."

The alliance also holds an annual "Maine Food Means Business" summit with the Maine Grocers Association that brings food producers together with wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers and other professionals in the food industry.

One of the topics new food businesses learned about was food safety, "which blew a lot of people away," Maclin said.

"They just didn't even think about that before, and it's a huge issue," he said. "All you need is one E. coli experience and you're done, particularly if you're a new vendor."

The summit also features a speed dating-style forum where new producers can sign up to have retail food executives come by their displays and check out their products.

"And you have speakers from distribution companies," Bissonnette said, "and you have forums where you get Shaw's, Hannaford and all these people together, and they talk about their business and what they see coming up for the key markets, such as natural and organic and gluten free, or whatever the next big thing is.

"It's an amazing group of Maine executives – people you can just email whenever you have a question and say, 'Can you help me with this?' "

Lucy Benjamin, founder of Lucy's Granola in East Blue Hill, called the summit "a great way to have your product come to the attention of some really serious buyers."

Benjamin fell in love with granola when she tried some made by a baker at a local farmers market. She started making her own, and took some to a bake sale at her local library. "People kept asking me for more and more," she said, "so I kept making it, and eventually I decided that I couldn't just give it away anymore."

Now she's got a commercial kitchen in her home, and employs people to make the granola 12 hours a day.

Benjamin's granola contains much less sugar than other brands. Most granola is sold in 12- to 13-ounce bags, but Benjamin sells hers by the pound. She makes three varieties: Original, extra seedy and gluten-free.

"It's very simple and straightforward, and it's well toasted," she said. "It's handmade in really tiny batches, about 15 pounds at a time at the moment."

Benjamin started selling her granola at a farmers market, then at the local food co-op. After two years of growing her business on her own, she's now in 30 to 40 stores in New England; Washington, D.C.; and New York, and at seven farmers markets. She has doubled her business every year, and is hoping to expand once she finds a distributor.

Benjamin said before she started her own food business, she had no idea how much work was involved.

"I'm selling it myself," she said. "I'm calling all my shops. I'm keeping supplies coming in. I'm doing the invoicing. I have a whole mail-order business that I'm packaging and servicing. You have to keep on top of design, labels, all the supplies from bags to labels to ingredients to packaging material. Everything. It's endless."

Benjamin has been a member of the Maine Food Producers Alliance for about a year and a half. At one of the annual summits, she connected with a woman who is now doing the lab work to get nutritional information on Benjamin's products. She's also doing some shelf-life testing.

The event, Benjamin said, "was really useful, really encouraging. I really do feel I could call up many of the members and ask for help. I really feel that there is a network there."

It was at one of the summits that Shannon Bissonnette was able to connect with the retailers who are helping her take her business to the next level.

"It's exciting," Bissonnette said. "It's terrifying. It's a little bit of everything. But you know, that's what you want. I'm ready for it. Bring it on."

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad

 

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Additional Photos

20120224_SoupNuts
click image to enlarge

Shannon Bissonnette had guidance from the Maine Food Producers Alliance to step up production of her Better Than Average Jams.

click image to enlarge

Lucy Benjamin’s granola is now sold in 30 to 40 stores in New England; Washington, D.C.; and New York.

Courtesy photo

 


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