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Aspiring entrepreneurs seek Food Tech Center help

Josh Bevan, manager of the pilot project research plant

Drew Dalgetty, foreground, is the manager of the University of Idaho Food Technology Center in Caldwell. Photo by Brad Carlson/IBR

The University of Idaho Food Technology Center seeks a U.S. Department of Agriculture certification to process pre-cut meat and poultry products. The move comes as the Caldwell facility works with more recently unemployed or underemployed people who aim to launch food businesses, Manager Drew Dalgetty said.

“We’re working with just about everything else,” he said, referring to food product ingredients.

Approval to process pre-cut meat – U of I Food Tech would not be a slaughter facility – would give the facility another tool with which to serve rising demand. The products would require USDA certification and inspection, he said.

“These folks are coming from all walks of life,” Dalgetty said. They have diverse employment backgrounds, from agriculture to high technology, and “obviously it’s a function of people being out of work. We’re trying to first show them how to manufacture their products and meet federal and state standards.”

U of I Food Tech rents out its commercial kitchen and packaging facility at prices that vary based on a project’s input costs. General food preparation, wet and dry processing, hot filling, baking and packaging are among offerings.

Staff at any one time are working with 40 to 60 food entrepreneurs and small-scale processors, Dalgetty said. Entrepreneurs go through a screening process and complete a full-day class covering food processing regulations, best practices and safety and well as business and marketing.

“We evaluate their application and start working with them if they meet our approval,” he said. “We teach them to commercially produce their product, helping them attain the standards to meet FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) requirements.”

Since client entrepreneurs come and go, sometimes moving on to their own food processing and packaging operations, U of I Food Tech staff constantly evaluate applicants even though the facility operates near capacity at certain times, he said.

“We’re always open to new ventures,” Dalgetty said.

Reducing fixed overhead costs in the early stages of a venture is one benefit of using the center’s kitchen and packaging facility, he said.

A food processing research pilot plant opened in 2005 to provide contracted research for larger manufacturers. It also works with agricultural chemical companies – evaluating whether new pesticides transfer to fruits and vegetables at rates that meet regulatory safety standards, for example.

“The pilot plant generates a majority of the facility’s income and basically allows us to be sustainable,” Dalgetty said. Josh Bevan manages the pilot plant, where fees vary based on the needs of the project.

The commercial kitchen is key for educational outreach, helping entrepreneurs develop their ventures, and even for growing the number of products made from local fruit and produce to the point that the items can go into local school systems, Dalgetty said.

U of I acquired the building from Sage Community Resources predecessor Ida-Ore Planning and Development in 1999 and subsequently made changes. The center is 7,000 square feet plus about 3,000 square feet for warehousing and storage. It employs three people part-time and four full-time, including a recently hired full-time quality assurance officer.

Dalgetty said the facility has been self-sustaining and non-subsidized in recent years, bringing in revenue from $400,000 to $700,000 in the last three years.

He aims to physically expand the facility, to position the pilot plant to provide more contract research services for food and ag-chemical industries and to enable the kitchen to handle meat and dairy items.

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