Food Innovation Center event nourishes business dreams
By Eric Mortenson
PORTLAND — If chatty banter makes for a successful business, Suzi Buchanan is all set. During a trade show at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center Tuesday, Buchanan described herself as “principal popologist” of her fledgling business, Humdinger Kettle Korn.
“I tell people I have a degree in popology,” she said. “Yes, I studied under the kernel.”
Quick wit might help get her flavored popcorn on the grocery store shelves, but hard work is a more certain route. Buchanan and two dozen other entrepreneurs taking part in the trade show have paid their dues through recipe and product development classes.
They’ve learned about packaging, food safety and the 30-second elevator sales pitch. They’ve sold at farmers’ markets and holiday fairs, and now they’re ready to attempt the jump to commercial production.
Oregon already ranks ninth nationally with $44 million annually in direct sales at farmers’ markets, U-pick operations, roadside stands and Community Supported Agriculture operations. For many in agriculture, commercial production is the next step up in dealing directly with consumers — whether they make something themselves or supply small-scale manufacturers.
Products on display Tuesday included tomato jam, salsas, flavored chia chips, vegan cashew cream, nut cookies and more. The makers, many of whom still work out of their home kitchens, are attempting to ride onto store shelves atop the consumer wave that favors locally sourced ingredients mixed with a good story.
Nicole Possert said her “Coley’s Nut Cookies” — made with flax meal — derive from a childhood in which her mother frowned at sweets while her grandmother provided them on the sly. “It’s the healthy part of my mom and the sweet part of my grandmother,” Possert said.
Amerinda Alpern said her marionberry-flavored chia chip is a natural choice for consumers because the berry was developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Station at OSU and is easily the state’s predominant commercial blackberry. On the practical side, she included her pepper cucumber chips at the trade show because the New Seasons Market chain has expressed interest in it and she’d heard a store buyer would be attending.
Alpern’s story? She’s still in the research and development phase of business but brings an artist’s perspective to food production. “So for me, the color is important and the texture is important,” she said. “Let’s include taste in the structure.”
Jocelyn Hui started making Caju Cream, made with organic cashews, organic cashews, organic lemon or lime juice and a blend of spices, as part of her attempt to get her husband, Eric, to back away from meat and adopt a plant-based diet. The cream can be used as a dip, sauce or salad dressing; Eric Hui said he puts it on everything and now handles sales and marketing for their startup company. Each has an outside job: she’s an ophthalmic photographer doing medical imaging at Oregon Health & Science University and he’s a website developer.
Buchanan, whose popcorn comes in Twisted Lime, Snicker Doodle and Sweet and Salty flavors, has a direct line to the farm. Her older brother, Randy Buchanan, grows sweet corn near Burbank, Wash., south of Pasco, helped by their parents, Donna and Wayne Buchanan. After some experimentation, they “just jumped into it” and included 10 acres of popcorn in their planting this spring. The family farm will supply Suzi Buchanan’s production.
Buchanan’s equipment includes a century-old popcorn sheller that removes kernels from the cob, and a bagger — formerly used to package Cheerios — that she bought at auction. This year they’ve lined up help from a farmer who has a new combine capable of shelling the popcorn much more efficiently.
Buchanan now sells at five farmers’ markets, working from her home kitchen in Hillsboro, Ore., but wants to be on the store shelves. To that end, she’s bought industrial-zoned property and plans to build a 3,000 square-foot production facility.
She’s passionate about growing a business, and figures her family farm backstory meshes nicely with that goal.
“People want to know where their food is coming from,” she said. “From crop to pop.”