Food innovation is in Idaho’s roots, as Jessica Anderson with Amalgamated Sugar put it.
Idaho Business Review’s June 9 Breakfast Series event at The Grove Hotel showed just that, as five individuals with connections to agriculture — like sugar beet and urban farming — and food production — such as beer, cheese and chocolate — shared their insights into the good and the challenging areas of Idaho’s food scene, farm to table and beyond. The panel discussion was moderated by Justin Fredin, an attorney with presenting sponsor Hawley Troxell. College of Western Idaho and Optum Idaho also helped sponsor the event.
“Innovation’s definitely the most fun part about my job,” said Mike Francis, with Payette Brewing. “Because when you’re innovating new product, you usually have to try it at the end,” he continued to some laughter from the audience.
A possibly surprising fact, however, is that total alcohol consumption has not really increased in over 20 years.
“Whatever you might have read in 2020, people were not drinking more alcohol; it was how they were consuming the alcohol,” Francis said. “For us we saw people wanting to buy packaged products; when things got shut down overnight, about 30% of our volume disappeared, because nobody was serving beer…Innovation is important because really, you’re trying to gain market share.”
Many industries had to adapt over the last couple years, and many continue to innovate multiple aspects of business. What follows is a summary of the most broadly applicable insights from the June 9 discussion.
There’s been a shift in the market over the past few years, resulting in many Idahoans looking closer to home for their everyday needs, Ben Brock, with Global Gardens, shared. “That’s what we’re looking to capitalize on — is maintaining those close relationships,” he added. “We’re aware that for Idaho to be successful, we need to be looking inward and outward.”
Fellow panelists agreed, and several highlighted the support provided by various institutions — from same and cross industry businesses to local colleges to the state government.
“The fact that the state is business friendly I would say is a big factor also of why Lactalis is developing its facility in Idaho — access to water, cheaper electricity, etc. — is very important,” said Olivier Delobbe, with Lactalis.
That business-friendly culture applies directly to Eric Torres-Garcia as well, who went from crafting cocoa bombs in TikTok videos to mass producing them in Blackfoot. Torres-Garcia, who was enrolled at Boise State University at the time, credits the university’s entrepreneurial development resources as well as Idaho’s Small Business Development Center, the Idaho Women’s Business Center, Dave Wagers with Idaho Candy Co. and others for assisting in the successful launch of his new business in December 2019. After offering to sell his cocoa bombs (which also became the name the company) on a website and social media platforms, Torres-Garcia received unexpected, and overwhelming, demand.
“I severely underestimated the power of social media,” Torres-Garcia described.
“I reached out to my (former) entrepreneur professor, kind of showing him what was going on…and he really gave me two choices: option A, you can stop this and give people all their money back, or option B, you, pardon my language here, can get your ass to work. I chose option B,” Torres-Garcia added amidst chuckles.
Torres-Garcia also highlighted that he continues to feel very supported through his partnerships with other Idaho companies that are a part of his business’s operations.
“We are in a great position; a lot of these companies are not super huge … they’re willing to grow with you,” Torres-Garcia said. “… they’re willing to help everybody … regardless of what stage they are at in business.”
Panelists also shared their connections with the research and extension services through the University of Idaho, such as for agricultural information; College of Western Idaho, to prepare skilled workers and trade schools and high schools offering trade programs, to potentially prepare a workforce.
Idaho agriculture products also got several shoutouts. Fredin highlighted that Idaho is number two in the nation for sugar beets; number three in milk and cheese; and barley and hops are one and two in the nation, which Mike Francis, with Payette Brewing, also spoke to.
“We get about 90% of our ingredients within the state,” Francis said, which is helpful as freight and gas prices are escalating.
“We’re so fortunate to have good agriculture,” Francis added.
Delobbe praised the quality of milk — high in fat and protein — Treasure Valley dairies produce. He added that the high fat and high protein, coupled with low somatic cell count, are very important factors in Lactalis’s creation of various cheeses, like fresh mozzarella. Lactalis has received various awards multiple years in a row for its innovative cheeses.
“The milk producers in Idaho are very professional,” Delobbe said. “They have a lot of cows, big equipment, they’re able to feed the cows with the best ingredients; they can cool the milk very fast, which is very important to keep the quality of the milk, and they are shipping the milk to our facility very quickly.”
Anderson also highlighted that Idaho’s agriculture and production touches beyond the state’s boundaries. “Idahoans cannot consume everything we produce,” she said, “so we have a lot of support at the state level to help businesses and farmers export their products … and that’s something we should be proud of.”
A need to innovate
An innovative part of food innovation is creatively overcoming new or evolving challenges, sometimes unique to, sometimes shared by, each industry. One such evolving, shared challenge is a lack of qualified workers, which Delobbe and Francis in particular spoke to.
“For us, the main problem has been labor shortage,” Delobbe said. “The turnover is also increasing. So, we are developing more on-the-job training to be able to train people who do not have the skills that we need for our industry.”
For Francis, the labor shortage is not a recent challenge. “We get a lot of people who are interested in the beer industry — it’s beer — but it’s finding people with experience and training. There are not many places in the country that do fermentation science,” he said. “The good things are there are people who are excited, who want to brew beer … as the beer scene in Boise grows, there are more people who are out there with some experience and are looking for jobs.”
Rising costs of everything from raw materials to operations and various supply chain challenges (such as lead times for plastic and equipment, as Delobbe pointed out) did not go unmentioned, but labor was in finer focus.
“Obviously, there are jobs that move this economy and move this country that are just not as glamorous as they may have once been,” Anderson said. “So, we’re losing truck drivers. We’re losing agricultural workers; we’re losing people who are willing to work in a factory. However, we’re trying to build out a pipeline starting at all levels, starting with youth organizations (4-H, FFA) … and kind of reverse this cultural norm…there are people who are better suited to trade labor or there are people who are happier if they are out in the field.”
Anderson also mentioned transportation being a challenge (exporting product), as it is the largest cost to the company, and urban encroachment. She said, “It’s really hard as a farmer when you are trying to do your best to do your living, but crop prices continue to be low, input prices continue to be high, and someone comes to you with not a per-acre offer on your land but a square-foot offer. It’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to be altruistic and continue farming’ … so, looking at that and looking at ways to be more supportive of our farmers and to our long-term businesses that are critical to our economy.”
Additionally, policy came up.
“In the last few years, all sorts of facets of our lives have been changed, and I think policies at city, county, state levels, as it relates to food production…it’s provided an opportunity to reexamine some of the ways that we’re integrating agricultural policies with community level planning, zoning,” Brock said, adding that greenhouses or hoop houses are desired tools for people and organizations.
“That would enable farmers to extend their seasons and be more profitable year-round,” Brock continued. “There are a lot of hoops to jump through, when it comes to that on the city and county levels. Just bringing some of those discussions and different perspectives to policy discussions…the timing couldn’t be more appropriate right now, given the growth and the changes that we’ve experienced. There’s a lot of progress that can be made on a large scale to create a more profitable, resilient food system for residents, consumers, producers.”
The June 9 Food Innovation Breakfast Series Panel:
Justin Fredin, attorney, Hawley Troxell
Justin Fredin is in the firm’s business department and real estate practice group. He has a strong background in real estate and contract law, specifically land use law. Prior to joining Hawley Troxell, Fredin spent nine years working with the Ada Country Highway District as in-house counsel, giving him wide experience in real estate, land use, entitlements and development issues.
Jessica Anderson, public affairs manager, Amalgamated Sugar Company
Jessica Anderson has been with Amalgamated Sugar since 2016 when she accepted the company’s newly created communications specialist position. Since then, her responsibilities have expanded to include government relations and community outreach responsibilities. She serves as a representative of Amalgamated Sugar on the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Food and Ag Industry Advisory Board, the Food Producers of Idaho and Idaho Agriculture in the Classroom organizations. Anderson also serves on the board of directors for the Foundation for Idaho History and the Idaho Future Farmers of America (FFA) Foundation. Before coming to Amalgamated Sugar, Anderson owned a digital marketing company, also working as a freelance magazine journalist. She received her Bachelor of Arts in communication, with a minor in political science, from Boise State University, where she will be attending school again this fall to earn an Executive Master of Business Administration degree.
Ben Brock, farm manager, Global Gardens
Ben Brock joined Global Gardens, a program of the Idaho Office for Refugees, in 2022, having previously served as director of farm development at Little Buddy Farm in Fruitland. He is passionate about implementing practices that add to the resilience of local food systems, especially producer/consumer connections and soil health and water conservation. He earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Williams College and completed a master’s degree in leadership for sustainability at the University of Vermont. Prior to his career in farming, Brock guided on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and served as the outdoor program director at Riverstone International School.
Olivier Delobbe, site director, Lactalis American Group, Nampa plant
Olivier Delobbe has more than 25 years of experience in the food production industry. After earning a master’s degree in food science, specializing in microbiology and food safety, Delobbe started his career with Lactalis in France in 1996 at a cheese factory in Britany. There, he served first as quality manager, then as assistant production manager. In 2009, he moved to the United States to accept the role of mozzarella production manager. Over the next 13 years, he was promoted to various leadership positions with Lactalis in Nampa. Today, as site director of the Nampa plant, Delobbe is responsible for leading and directing all aspects of production, quality, food safety and personnel at Lactalis’ largest production plant in the United States.
Mike Francis, founder and CEO, Payette Brewing Company
Mike Francis left corporate life as an industrial engineer at Boeing Co. in Seattle to engineer some industry of his own. After receiving an associate degree in brewing technology from Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, followed by a stint at Schooner Exact Brewing in Seattle, Francis headed to his home turf of Boise in 2010 to establish Payette Brewing Company, now proudly celebrating its “11th year of beer!”
Eric Torres-Garcia, founder and president, Cocoa Bombs
Eric Torres-Garcia is an accomplished 26-year-old, USA-born, Mexican-American entrepreneur. He holds a bachelor’s degree in international business from Boise State University. In December of 2019, an unexpectedly successful viral video urged him to take a giant leap of faith into the chocolate business. He has since attracted worldwide attention for his crazed signature concoction, Cocoa Bombs.