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McClatchy-Tribune  06/06/2014 11:59 PM ET
Piedmont startups find kitchen aid [The Durham News, N.C. :: ]

June 06--HILLSBOROUGH -- In the chaos of the kitchen is where food entrepreneurs strike it hot, or get burned trying.

Three of every four culinary startups fail within a year, experts say, but at the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Facility, entrepreneurs say they've found help staying out of the fire.

In fact, four companies using the center have grown so large, they are now looking for commercial space to lease. That's a problem in Orange County, where economic development officials say the available space is either too small or too expensive.

Most small producers also don't have $60,000 to $80,000 to equip a professional kitchen, said Matthew Roybal, the center's executive director.

Roybal declined to name many clients, citing privacy concerns. One looking to move is LunaPops owner Jon Mills, whose Wilmington company was one of the first clients at the center when it opened. In three years, they've outgrown the space and could move by next year, he said.

Orange County's economic development director Steve Brantley said several other clients have developed overseas business, including Vintage Bee, which exports its gourmet honey to China.

The center "is gaining a statewide reputation as a model for food and ag processing," Brantley said.

The independently operated nonprofit, which opened in 2011 on Valley Forge Road in Hillsborough, has 34 clients and 30 more in the planning, orientation and training stages. The center could easily fill double the existing freezer and storage space it now has, Brantley said.

Getting started

Durham resident Modupe Hassan, 62, has been in business for a while, but she's still getting started.

The Nigerian-born cook moved to America 42 years ago for college. When she was laid off six years ago from GlaxoSmithKline, Hassan tested her Ownjeh Rice Sauce on friends and started producing it with the help of a co-packing company. Co-packers help small-scale producers package their products for a fee.

Hassan found out about the Piedmont center just as she was about to lose her co-packer. The center gave her an affordable place to continue making her product, but it also gave her a boost of confidence and a place to go for ideas and advice, she said.

Until now, her focus has been making samples of her sauce and getting certified by state regulators so she can sell it at A Southern Season and on the company's website. Her first full-scale production is this month, she said.

"Individually, none of us can build a business like that," she said. The center provides "that for you at a reasonable price."

Multi-county partnership

The center is a partnership among Orange, Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties. It grew with $1.5 million in seed money, plus numerous state and federal grants. The kitchens rent for $25 an hour, with free time before and after a scheduled appointment for cleaning and sanitizing.

Roybal was hired shortly after the center opened and recently hired facility manager Rob Gardner to help oversee its operation. Both are passionate about what they do, and the spirited debates they have about the center's direction has sparked new ideas, the men said.

They expect the books to be in the black by year-end, just in time for Roybal's first official report to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

The plan has always been to build a self-sustaining center that could provide entrepreneurs and local farmers with new markets and grow the region's agricultural economy. The center regularly hosts school tours and other groups.

The center also is seeking grants to avoid raising client fees and to save for future needs, Roybal said. In a perfect world, they would add a regional food truck and catering services center in Durham, Chatham and Guilford counties, and a meat-processing facility, he said.

Chapel Hill chef Beau Bennett has run his company, Beau Catering, out of the space for two years using produce from Hillsborough farmers. The chef and his team were working hard last week as '80s hair metal b


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