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Years ago the only companies that made food products were large corporations that had teams of industry professionals in marketing, food science, microbiology, food safety and packaging. They made sure that the products they created tasted great, looked beautiful and most importantly were “safe” for consumption and made under strict USDA and/or FDA guidelines.

In recent times, many of the new food products emerging on the market are not made by big food companies, but by people that are from non-food science backgrounds like finance, fitness or medicine. They are created by people who have stories to tell about how the concept that they created in their personal home kitchen saved the lives of their kids who had, before that, been forced to eat products that contained GASP* sugar that came from beets and not from cane—oh the horrors of it all! Or they are created by the fitness professional who learned that his chocolate cake made from chicken protein isolate is the answer to losing fat and gaining muscle (hey that’s a pretty good idea right there!)

These saavy entrepreneurs with no experience in food science, food safety or microbiology often come to the conclusion that they can do it all on their own and they don’t need the expertise of those who have dedicated their lives to studying food safety and science. They furiously develop recipes in their home kitchen using non-scientific measurements like tablespoons and cups to measure out their recipe. They use ingredients that they picked up from whole foods like trail mix and flavored protein powders. They don’t take into account water activity, rancidity issues or potential staling. Packaging options are not even considered. Of course it’s not all their fault that they assume it’s easy to bring food products to market- after all, when was the last time you saw a documentary on food science or product commercialization? Probably never! The food industry is notoriously secretive on how it’s all done , they don’t want to scare the masses by elaborating on unpleasant sounding topics like preservatives, HACCP plans and third party microbiology testing. The only vaguely real life examples we see are cute short videos on the food network show “Unwrapped” which makes food manufacturing look like a Willie Wonka chocolate factory.

So back to our do it yourself entrepreneurs, who after they have concocted their amazing idea (in cups and tablespoons!) they call a co-packing facility and wonder why they don’t get a response or why co-packers are so impossible to get a hold of, or why no co-packers are jumping at the chance to test out their product and help them get it on the market. After all, this is the opportunity of all opportunities!

I have said this before—and written it many times but the madness continues. There is a reason why the co-packers won’t call you, the entrepreneur, back and that’s because they don’t want to deal with the entrepreneurs naïve understanding of the food industry. They don’t want to hold the entrepreneurs hand and explain the meaning of third party micro testing, and they don’t want to spend hours breaking down their costs, knowing they probably won’t be able to afford the minimums anyway. Co-packers get hundreds of calls a month and they can smell the novice from miles away.

So what is an entrepreneur to do in this day and age? My advice is to not try to do this alone! The second you have an idea on how to bring a product to market the first call should not be to your lawyer, web designer, or graphic design expert but to your food scientist! It doesn’t even have to be “your” food scientist, just go to the IFT.org website and find a local food scientist from their reach out program who can give you some advice, or attend a local IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) regional meeting and network with the experts. The IFT is an amazing information resource. They have free regional local ingredient trade shows, online links to information and more.

If you are an entrepreneur who wants to bring a new product to market, make sure you do your initial homework. Read up on food science and the food industry. Make sure you have funding and that you understand the safety and regulations surrounding the type of product you want to make. If you don’t understand then hire a guide or consultant that can help you get started. Sometimes there is a reason why your concept is not on the market, and it’s not because no one thought of it already! It may not be something that can be made safely, or it might be too expensive, or the ingredient you want to use (bee nectar from the rain forest) may not be readily available.

Everyone knows what a plumber does, what a lawyer does, what an architect does and we seek out those experts when their services are needed, because we know that we don’t have the time or knowledge to do it ourselves correctly. But yet, when it comes to developing food products- thanks to the secrecy of the food industry and the glossing over by fakeumentary TV, entrepreneurs are learning the hard way that it’s not so glossy after all.

 

As a food science consultant myself, I have heard all the horror stories and tales of food start up companies that didn’t research properly and spent thousands more than was necessary. Failed production runs, overpaying for lab tests and shelf life issues that could have easily been avoided had they just hired a technical expert to assist them. Simple tools that cost a few hundred dollars (like pH meters and refractometers) can help ensure consistency while you develop your idea, versus paying a lab to do it for you. Understanding how to use a simple spreadsheet to set up nutritional analysis (hey finance gurus turned food experts– this should be a walk in the park for you). Don’t rely on your co packer to assume that your first production run will be a success, and don’t blame them when your organic natural color solution turns black in month because you did not do your shelf life study (I wish I had a bitcoin for every shelf life study that was not done and subsequently lead to a failed launch- for the sake of expediting to market).

It makes me sad when I walk the floors of Expo West and Fancy Food Show and hear entrepreneurs tell me “if only I had found a food science from the get-go”. Well I am here to remind all those who are just starting out that they should do JUST THAT! Consider this the dime store advice that you will wish you took in 2 years from now.

About Rachel Zemser