Farm Market Kitchen cooks up new companies
“If I am going to go to all this trouble to make a jar of jam, I am going to take other people with me,” said Mary Pat Carlson in 1998 when she was looking for a way to sell jams made from her family’s Door County orchard.
Carlson needed a commercial kitchen that met state regulations for producing food products. As she talked with more people in Northeast Wisconsin, she realized that there were many small farmers, orchard owners, bakers and cooks in the area who could produce amazing, unique food from local ingredients but they couldn’t afford their own commercial kitchen.
She did research, talking with food specialists as far away as Cornell University and the University of Denver. She organized a survey to determine the feasibility of establishing the Northeast Wisconsin region as a center for food entrepreneurship.
When the results looked promising, she began to study locations for a commercial kitchen and a place to host culinary tours like those she had participated in on the East and West coasts.
“We have strong rural communities where food comes from here,” she said. “We wanted to grow culinary tourism.”
She identified Kewaunee County as a stable rural community that would welcome business growth. She began talking with the late Gerald Haegele, who she said “had the biggest heart for Algoma.” He had purchased a building near Algoma’s harbor and offered to donate part of it to her for the commercial kitchen. When the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen opened in 1999, Carlson stepped up as its director.
Now 16 years later, she has helped more than 180 small businesses get their start at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen. Last summer, the kitchen also hosted culinary tours for more than 2,000 people.
“It is a little project that has had a big impact,” she said at a retirement party for her this month in the kitchen’s dining room which overlooks Lake Michigan.
While the list of companies that received their start at the incubator kitchen is too numerous to name, Carlson cites Nutorious Nuts of Green Bay and Omega Foods of Two Rivers as two companies whose growth was boosted by the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen. More recently, Love You More Toffee of Kewaunee is thriving due to support from the kitchen, she said.
“We have three new food businesses this month,” she said. “We tend to get more in the winter because people have time to think creatively.”
Carlson acknowledges that not all the food ideas incubated at the kitchen grow into businesses.
“People have to find their own way,” said Carlson. “We are here to provide the support if they want to grow.”
“She has been phenomenal in terms of putting the Algoma Farm Kitchen on the national map,” said Connie Loden, senior project manager for New North, an economic development not-for-profit in Green Bay that has worked closely with Carlson. “The kitchen has served as a model for other areas who want to establish kitchens.”
Mario Micheli, who with his wife, Clare, owns a farm in Kewaunee County, makes their signature Clario Farmstead Pasta at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen.
The couple began the business last year after a growing season destroyed a lot of their vegetables, but left them with plenty of kale and carrots, Micheli said.
A friend, Theresa Hicks, suggested that they use them to make pasta with their own organic eggs and helped them make the first few batches.
They decided to get a license and began producing it at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen this year and selling it at the Sturgeon Bay Farmers Market.
“People were intrigued and interested,” said Micheli. “Next thing we knew, they were coming back for more.”
This winter, Micheli will be selling the pasta at markets in Green Bay and Milwaukee.
“No one else is in the fresh pasta market in Northeast or Southeast Wisconsin,” he said. The pasta can be cooked in under five minutes and the kale and pepper has been one of their biggest sellers, he said.
Carlson is often at the kitchen to offer suggestions to the producers, helping them with their business plans.
“If someone needs a work force, we have people available who are versed in all areas of food preparation,” she said.
Chuck Sully of Crusty Uprising has been baking his bread at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen for the last seven years. He estimates that he has sold about $300,000 worth of bread during that time at stores, businesses and markets as diverse as Piggly Wiggly, the Settlement Shops of Sister Bay, and the Flying Pig of Algoma. He offers 15 different breads, as well as scones and rolls, and is now expanding into the Green Bay market.
“I do it for therapy,” said Sully. “I love giving people good bread,” He said that he has had to turn down several customers this year because the demand for some of his bread products is so high.
Carlson’s expertise also will continue to be tapped by the Brown County Culinary Kitchen, which she helped form several years ago, working with John Bloor at N.E.W. Curative Rehabilitation, a center for adults with disabilities. The center had a kitchen that was not being used, and Carlson thought it could be adapted for commercial use by many of their current clients at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen.
She favors collaborative work and formed a four-way partnership to operate the kitchen. She provides the technical expertise, N.E.W. Curative offers cleaning and maintenance services, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College provides education support, and Advance, a program of the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, provides scheduling and administrative support.
Since then, the kitchen has helped launch several dozen food companies, she said. Some of the most recent have been Grammy’s Pasties, which makes meat pies; Heart@Work, which offers caramel corn and other popcorns; and Amazing Cupcakes.
Carlson is excited about the Green Bay incubated companies as well. She reports that Grammy’s Pasties recently bought a freezer truck to transport its product to new Wisconsin and Minneapolis markets. She looks for ways that the small food companies can cooperate.
For example, with Grammy’s new truck perhaps other frozen food products made at the kitchen can be transported to new markets, she said.
Carlson also serves as the small food processing specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension and plans to continue in that role. Since it requires her to travel around the state advising small businesses, this month the Extension set up “Mondays with Mary Pat” to allow people to attend a virtual meeting with her to discuss issues related to their food business. She has already handled more than 20 virtual meetings, she said.
Even though she is retiring as director as the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen, Carlson said that she will continue to support small food companies.
She will also have more time now to market her jam, which has grown into a line of more than 40 products under the Door County Wildwood Market label – from cherry salsa to a rhubarb walnut sauce.
Her cherry and other fruit tarts have become her signature product, which she served at many of this summer’s culinary tours. The tours often included a visit to a local winery followed by a meal at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen, featuring many local products made at the kitchen.
She also travels to the larger holiday and food markets throughout the Midwest, including this weekend’s holiday fair at the Madison Contemporary Art Museum, where she is one of 10 food vendors from the state who are invited each year.
“One gentleman recently inquired how a tiny little nonprofit in Algoma could have such a large impact,” she said. “But if you can get people to apply what they are learning, you have really achieved something.”
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Farm Market Kitchen cooks up new companies