Question: I’m an entrepreneur looking to start a food product related business in Collier County. But where do I start? How can I find information on business planning, product development and regulations? And what process do I need to go through to sell my food product to restaurants or large grocery store chains?
Collier County is an excellent place to start a food business. With easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables nearly year-round and a strong business-minded community, Collier County offers a number of resources to people looking to start their own food business —but where should you start?
Similar to farming, before you even think about what to plant or what type of land to buy, you need to do some good old business planning.
The most successful businesses are clear, research-based, realistic and ultimately can help you get the financing you need to be successful. Those interested in investing in your business will need to see a clear plan of what you intend to do, and how you’re going to make the business sustainable.
The following information is a list of resource intended to help you determine the feasibility of starting a food business in Collier County. The reality is that most food businesses fail in their first year. Starting a food business is a process. So remember that along with research, planning and capital, determination is equally important.
Business Planning & Development
Business planning is a way to strategically create the vision for your product or business. And it doesn’t just stop with creating a plan; it’s a great tool for ongoing management of marketing, operations, human resources and finances. Business planning is also key in communicating information to lenders, partners and other stakeholders:
- A group of UF researchers who specialize Food Safety, Entrepreneurship and Food Science created two excellent publications to get you started. Topics cover what it takes to start and run a food business:
- Penn State Extension “Food For Profit: Before You Start” will help you determine if you’ve got what it takes to venture into the food business : https://extension.psu.edu/food-for-profit-before-you-start
- Small Business Administration (SBA) has good information in regards to business planning: https://www.sba.gov/business-guide
- SCORE provides free consultation, advice and mentoring: https://www.score.org/find-location
- And we have a local chapter of SCORE in Naples that offers information and workshops : https://naples.score.org/
- Collier County Office of Business & Economic Development is the place to go for guidance on tapping into the local market : http://www.colliergov.net/your-government/divisions-a-e/business-economic-development
Understanding what regulations apply are a challenge for many small businesses and particularly food related businesses due to the importance of safety requirements. Some of the requirements apply to all food businesses and some are specific to the type of food you produce, such as low-acid canned food, seafood or juice.
What you are producing, where you are producing it, where you are selling your product, what ingredients you have in it, how you are your processing it, how much you are producing will depend on who you are regulated by. These agencies are: Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation , Florida Department of Health , U.S Department of Agriculture , and/or the U.S. Food & Drug Administration .
Sometimes, depending on the product, you will fall under multiple agencies. These agencies want to help you make your business a success but keep in mind that consumer health and safety is their number one priority. These agencies will be able to tell you if your food product falls within their purview. Be realistic and flexible about tweaking your plans, if needed.
- Review this document, “How to Start a Food Business: Introduction” to explore food regulation steps: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fs254
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s “How to Start a Food Business” document also has good information on federal regulations: https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Industry/ucm322302.htm
- The Florida Departments of Agriculture Consumers Services (FDACS) Food Safety Division provides information on state regulations: http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Food-Safety
Product development information can be difficult to find because of the large variation in products. UF/IFAS Extension faculty, UF Food Scientists and even co-packers are all good resources when researching product development. The key here is to identify what specific issues and questions you need to ask related to your product such as, ‘How do I improve texture; how do I measure shelf life?; how do I adjust acidity?” and so on. The following resources can help you develop those questions:
- UF/IFAS State Specialized Agent, Food Science: http://www.imok.ufl.edu/faculty/krug/
- UF/IFAS Sustainable Food Systems Agent, Collier County: http://collier.ifas.ufl.edu/
- The Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee: https://theculinaryaccelerator.com
Production consists of identifying where you will produce your product and how to obtain reliable supplies, equipment and ingredients. Production can take place at a commercial kitchen, co-packer facility or in special conditions even in your home-kitchen (see the note below about the “Cottage Food Law”). A quick Google search may also connect you with shared commercial kitchen space that is available for rent in Collier County.
- Review the “How to Start a Food Business: Introduction” publication on steps to consider at the production level: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fs254
- Collier County Accelerator @ Immokalee is a membership based commercial kitchen and processing facility that will be open to the public in 2018 and may be able to help get your business to the next level : http://theculinaryaccelerator.com/
Selling Your Product
A good way to sell to restaurants is by directly approaching them. There are many locally owned restaurants, grocery stores, chefs and breweries in Collier County that are interested in supporting a local food system. Several good guides exists online on how to approach restaurants. Selling through major retailers is a similar process but with more requirements, especially in terms of packaging. If you plan on approaching multiple retailers, you might consider using a Food Broker. Food Brokers work on commission and can provide advice on how to market your product and approach multiple retailers as part of their services.
- Wynn’s Market: https://www.wynnsmarket.com/
- Oakes Farm Market:http://www.oakesfarms.com/services/retail-stores/oakes-farms-market/
- Florida based grocer Publix: http://corporate.publix.com/business/publix-business-connection/retail-product-supplier
A Note About “Cottage Food Law”
If all of this information is completely overwhelming, you may consider developing your product under the “Cottage Food Law”. The intent of the Cottage Food Law is to help small producers and processors to start a food business with minimal regulatory requirements and licensing. In fact, the Cottage Food Law exempts you from obtaining any food permits.
Cottage Foods must be developed in your home residence kitchen. While the requirements significantly limits the types of food you can process, it may be a good place to get your feet wet and develop your product without investing in commercial kitchen space and large overhead costs. It can also be a great way to test your market and see if you want to take the leap into a bona-fide food business.
- Cottage Food Guidance from Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS): http://freshfromflorida.s3.amazonaws.com/Media/Files/Food-Safety-Files/CottageFoodGuidanceFlyer.pdf
- UF/IFAS Extension fact sheet on Florida Cottage Foods: http://pinellas.ifas.ufl.edu/CottageFoods.shtml
- FDACS video presentation “Cottage Foods in Florida”: http://cottagefood.freshfromflorida.com/
Check the UF/IFAS website and blog to learn about upcoming UF/IFAS workshops that will be offered such as, “How to Start a Food Business in Florida” . This, and similar workshops, will provide participants with general information on food safety and quality, basic food science, business planning, and federal and state regulatory requirements for food businesses.
For more information contact: Jessica M. Ryals Sustainable Food Systems Agent UF IFAS Extension, Collier County 14700 Immokalee Road, Naples, Fl 34120 Office 239-252-4800 JessicaRyals@ufl.edu