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Incubator Kitchens Hatch Successful Food Businesses

TAOS - Federico Martinez, 64, makes a living from his late mother's salsa recipe.

NMSU food technology specialist Nancy Flores (right) helps Kinna and Manuel Perez prepare jars of Laos Chile Paste at the incubator kitchen a Johnson Controls Business Park in Espaņola. The couple developed the fiery fish-and-chile paste - which they're introducing at Albuquerque natural food stores - from a recipe Kinna learned from her Laotian relatives. (04/04/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

He sells about $34,000 a year of Antonio's Handmade Salsa de Taos to local supermarkets, netting about $13,000 to supplement his Social Security.

"People love my mom's recipe," Martinez said. "It practically sells itself."

But to legally market salsa, Martinez needs to make his product in a certified commercial kitchen. In 2000, he began working out of the Taos Food Center, a community incubator kitchen run by the Taos County Economic Development Corp.

"Thanks to the community kitchen, I have access to a fully equipped and certified facility with professionals that help me with my business," Martinez said.

Like Martinez, dozens of small-scale food processors are taking advantage of community incubator kitchens. The Taos Food Center has helped about 100 mom-and-pop food operations get started since it opened in 1996. About 35 year-round processors and 50 seasonal processors work out of the kitchen.

"Food processors often get started with grandma's recipe for salsa, cookies, chips or whatever, but people generally don't have the capital or know-how, so they turn to incubator kitchens," said Nancy Flores, a food technology specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "Like chicks in incubators, the kitchens give new businesses a place to hatch and get started."

The incubators offer processors access to commercial equipment and storage space in a fully licensed facility. That allows them to start producing while they learn to become independent, Flores said.

"Federal and state regulations for commercial food operations are extensive and cumbersome because of government efforts to enforce food safety," Flores said. "At the incubators, people learn to be successful entrepreneurs before spinning off on their own."

Incubator kitchens are fairly new in New Mexico, but they're spreading rapidly. The 5,000-square-foot Taos facility is the largest in the state. A 3,000-square-foot incubator opened in 2000 at Johnson Controls Business Park in Espaņola, and two smaller facilities ? one in Los Ojos for start-up bakers and one in Questa for catering businesses ? opened in 2002. The Rio Grande Community Development Corp. in Albuquerque plans to open a 5,600-square-foot incubator in the South Valley this year.

The kitchens are well equipped. Taos, for example, has commercial ovens, fryers, steam kettles, a vacuum sealer, two commercial fruit presses, a flash-pasteurizer for juice, and a semi-automatic canning line that includes a filler and capper. It also has dry storage, a large walk-in cooler and walk-in freezer space.

Users pay $8 to $10 an hour for access, depending on how often they work there, said Elena Arguello, Taos Food Center manager.

"The kitchen can accommodate several producers simultaneously," Arguello said. "We operate 24 hours, seven days per week to allow people who are just getting started to keep day jobs while they build their food business."

Fifteen year-round and seasonal processors work out of the Espaņola facility, said Cecelia Garcia, food science director and kitchen manager.

"It's helped a number of processors get started, including some 'underground' producers who now operate legally," Garcia said.

All the incubators offer free training courses and consulting services.

"The courses walk users through the entire process of managing a food business," Flores said. "That's crucial, because most often food businesses don't fail on a product's merits, but because the business isn't managed properly."

About 30 people enroll in each of the Taos Food Center's semiannual Food Sector Opportunity Class ? a free, weeklong course offered in spring and fall on food processing, marketing, distribution and product labeling, said Marlene Torres, program coordinator.

Most kitchen users take years to build their businesses before becoming independent. Lisa Fox, owner of Taos Southwest Chutney, has spent four years developing her line of original salsa chutneys, including two years working with Flores to get Food and Drug Administration approval for her product.

She sold about $21,000 in chutney at farmers markets last year, netting about $5,000. This year she's moving into wholesale.

"I just sold 10 cases to a store in Silver City," Fox said. "It was my first wholesale order."

Manuel and Kinna Perez have spent nearly two years at the Espaņola incubator developing Laos Chile Paste, a fiery fish-and-chile paste that Kinna learned to make from her Laotian relatives.

"We're only selling about four cases a month now at food stores in Albuquerque to introduce the product," Manuel said. "It's still a hobby. Profits will come later."

Some businesses have shown substantial success. Mark and Linda Coulig, founders of Muy Cool Inc., built a line of pepper jellies and fresh tasting fruit jams over four years at the Taos Food Center. After distributing to more than 75 retail stores nationwide, they sold the business for $30,000 to Michael and Tami Martinson in 2003.

The Martisons now produce and sell about $85,000 per year in Muy Cool products and Oatie Yum Yum cookie vegan bars, another business they bought after it was developed at the Taos center.

"We're not ready to move out on our own yet, because the costs to start up and operate a facility are still too much for us," Michael said. "The community kitchen has everything we need."

For more information about the Taos Food Center, or to enroll in free food-processing classes, call Torres or Arguello at (505) 758-3201. For information about the Espaņola incubator kitchen, call Garcia at (505) 753-8952. For general information about food processing or classes offered by NMSU, call Flores at (505) 646-1179.