Growing food entrepreneurs in Alberta – My @AlbertaatNoon column for June

Alberta Food Processing Development Centre, alberta culinary, alberta pulses
chefs in the food lab – photo credit – Karen Anderson

With the downturn in Alberta’s energy dominated economy, it is estimated that 100,000 jobs were lost this province in 2015.  Local news agencies have tracked the lay offs. It’s been devastating to watch. Job losses come with people attached. If not personally affected, everyone in the province knows family and friends who have been.

Fortunately, Albertans have true grit and with every flattened tire in the cycle of oil’s economy, the creativity of Albertans help diversify our economy away from that old cycle of booms and busts. We are a province of entrepreneurs and food entrepreneurs can get a boost for their ideas from a facility called the Alberta Food Processing Development Centre.

This post is about a day I recently spent at that centre and the positive potential that the centre has for impacting our economy. 

Alberta Food Processing Development Centre - photo credit - karen anderson
Touring the Alberta Food Processing Development Centre – photo credit – Karen Anderson

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) an annual survey of entrepreneurship activity, aspirations and attitudes of individuals around the world Albertans have a favourable view of business ownership. The GEM reports nearly 60 percent of Albertans see entrepreneurship as a good career choice, and approximately 35 percent of Albertans know someone who has started a business in the past two years.

Nearly 60 per cent of Albertans feel they have the knowledge and skills to launch a venture. Alberta is the leader in Canada for small business growth over a ten year period with a 19 per cent growth where the national average is 12 per cent.

Though oil is where big business and big money lies, Stats Canada reports that 95 per cent of all businesses in Alberta are actually small businesses. To be specific, they are actually “micro businesses” with less than four employees.

I’m particularly interested in small food businesses. I’ve watched several food business start-ups benefit from a special facility here in Alberta that is meant to encourage small business diversification through food manufacturing. It’s called Alberta’s Food Processing Development Centre and Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator. It’s located in Leduc – just south of Edmonton.

Since it’s opening in 1984, this 65,000 square foot facility has helped grow the province’s food manufacturing industry to more than $13 billion dollars annually employing over 25,500 people annually. The Leduc facility works with about 80 – 100 companies every year and supports the creation of three to five new companies each year.

In the last five years, the 10 companies it has aided in formation or expansion have brought $60 million in investment in Alberta and created 500 jobs. The center reports that companies that go through the business incubator program increase their chance of success by 80 per cent.

The program helps food entrepreneurs through the process of product development, commercialization, market launch and growth in sales. The goal is for companies to go on and develop there own facilities when they can afford the specialized equipment that would otherwise be a challenge in the development phase. Companies like Fresk-o Cheeses and Honey Bunny are examples of the success of this center.

Alberta Pulses, Alberta Culinary, Savour it all
Field trip – learning about pulses where they grow – photo credit – Karen Anderson

My chance to visit this hub for food businesses came through an invitation from the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance to join a group of chefs whose visit to the center was sponsored by Alberta Pulse Growers . The chefs were challenged to bring recipes for pulse products (peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils) that might be suitable for food production scalability. The center could help with sensory testing, packaging, equipment, production line development, marketing and eventual large scale manufacturing.

Pulses grow well here so it makes sense that if we can find more ways to use them, demand will grow, farmers will be sustained by this cash crop and jobs will be created from within the province as we learn to process the raw materials instead of just producing and shipping our raw goods elsewhere.

We tasted a lot of great food ideas from some wonderful Alberta chefs that day. The chefs included:

Lindsay Porter (El Cortez, Edmonton)
Doreen Prei (Edmonton)
Brad Smoliak (Kitchen by Brad, Edmonton)
Christine Sandford (Edmonton)
Sean Cutler (Kensington Riverside Inn, Calgary)
Melanie Hennessey (Winsport, Calgary)
Andrea Harling (Made Foods, Calgary)
Kerry Bennett (Care Bakery, Calgary)
Maria Besuijen (Fork and Salad, Calgary)

Will any of their ideas show up on our grocery store shelves any time soon? Well, maybe not but the seed of the idea of how to scale up a food business idea has been planted. The seeds will spread with the winds of their community of chefs and yes, I do believe we’ll see some really delicious things in our future.

For the Food Processing Development Centre, the future looks very bright. In a regular year, they might get 80 – 100 proposals submitted. In the first quarter of 2016, they’ve already had that many submissions.

Food is our future. Growing more Alberta food businesses will help make that a more sustainable future. I think that might be especially true if the increasingly popular pulses are involved.

Alberta Pulses, Alberta culinary, Savour it All, Karen Anderson
Alberta Pulses – yellow peas for as far as the eye can see – photo credit – Karen Anderson

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