Ever wonder how small food businesses get their products out to the public? Some local companies turn to one hot community kitchen in Poughkeepsie
By Jan Greenberg
Photos Michael Polito
Folks who have been around long enough remember when Woolworth’s was a stop on Poughkeepsie’s then-bustling Main Street. That was a long time ago. And while the Queen City of the Hudson has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with trendy restaurants and art galleries popping up all around town, the old Woolworth’s building still appears abandoned, its streetside retail space empty. But what casual passersby may not realize is that something is definitely cooking — as well as baking, freezing, and bottling — in the back of the building.
The site is home to Hudson Valley Foodworks, a community kitchen offering full facilities for specialty food production. More than 40 local businesses use Foodworks to bake their cookies, bottle their pickles, spice up their salsa and run their catering firms. Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Foodworks is financially stable, and its organizers are proud that they have played a vital role in the community by helping to launch a wide range of local food companies. “We have a mission to help companies get started,” says Acting Executive Director Jim Milano.
The idea for Hudson Valley Foodworks first surfaced in 1993 when the City of Poughkeepsie Partnership proposed a “kitchen incubator” to enable what was a growing number of start-up specialty food businesses to share processing equipment and production space. This coincided with the period in which there was renewed recognition of the region’s agricultural importance and a focus on preserving what continues to be the Valley’s most fragile resource. Central to the concept was the hope that the facility’s clients would use locally grown and produced products. With support from the Dutchess County Industrial Development Agency, the city of Poughkeepsie, the former Poughkeepsie Savings Bank, and private-sector loans, the Woolworth’s building was purchased for slightly more than $100,000. After extensive renovations, Hudson Valley Foodworks opened in 1997. Half a dozen local food producers immediately began using the facilities.
One of the first clients was Nilda’s Desserts, Ltd. In 1989, Jim’s wife Nilda Milano started baking giant chocolate chip cookies in her Poughkeepsie kitchen — 12 at a time — and delivering them to two local delis and a gas station. Word of the gargantuan goodies soon spread. By 1996 they were producing 1,000 cookies a week. “It was absolutely nuts,” says Jim about their home-based business. “We were producing 75,000 pounds of baked goods each year.” After discovering Foodworks, Nilda immediately increased production to 6,000 cookies a day with the help of a baking staff of 10 employees, all from the immediate area. Nilda’s line has now expanded to include biscotti, oat bars, brownies and individually wrapped pound cakes. One of their best customers, Vassar College has been snapping up these goodies for years, ordering 2,000-3,000 cookies and bars a week.
Nilda’s is a great success story. Things have not gone as smoothly for Foodworks over the past decade. More than once, poor management left the organization on the brink of collapse. Jim Milano now serves as Foodworks’ acting director, a title he has held for three years (and which is something of a misnomer, since there are no plans to find another director). He is credited with putting Hudson Valley Foodworks on a stable financial footing and streamlining its operation. “I run it like it is my own business,” says Milano, who doesn’t receive a salary for this position. “There have been multiple times when we were not sure whether this would be a go or a no-go. The business is now the users’ responsibility. We pay our bills and control our expenses.” Financial support from the Dyson Foundation of Millbrook and the Jane W. Nuhn Charitable Trust of Poughkeepsie helped Foodworks regain stability.
The facility has six large production spaces, including a bakery, a bottling room, and two wet kitchens with 150-gallon steam kettles and steam generators. At least four days a week, Nilda’s operation monopolizes the bakery, which is filled with oversized appliances: a double-rack oven, a 140-quart Hobart vertical mixer, a six-burner range, rows of cooling racks, and a high-speed dough extruder. Award-winning pickler Rick Field, cofounder (with Lauren McGrath) and owner of Rick’s Picks, uses the wet kitchen to perfect the unique pickle recipes he first started making during childhood summers in Vermont. A Yale graduate and former television producer, Field began the business in the kitchen of his Brooklyn apartment. Although he is no longer behind the stove (or to be exact, the steamer), Field is literally in the fields during the growing season. He scouts Hudson Valley farms for vegetables and other items in his product line, such as the best-selling Windy City Wasabeans (green beans in a soy-wasabi brine), Phat Beets (pickled beets in a rosemary-scented brine), and Spears of Influence (kirby cucumber spears in a cumin-scented brine). Foodworks “has been instrumental in the growth of my business,” Field says.
The packaging room, which stays at 50 degrees Fahrenheit all the time, is used for production of items that require minimal equipment, like My Brother Bobby’s Salsa. A Foodworks pioneer, Robert Gropper started the business in 1993; it is the only one of the original firms that remains at the facility. Even though Bobby’s has grown from a kitchen start-up, producing just a few pounds of the Original Red to a ton or more a week, it remains a hands-on business. “This facility still works for us,” says Gropper, who buys most of his produce from local farms and still delivers his tangy condiments — which are carried in close to 100 stores — personally. A smaller production kitchen is used exclusively by snack bar producer Square Bites, and there is a bottling room with an automated bottling line, storage and loading facilities with walk-in freezers, a walk-in cooler, secure storage cribs, and a loading dock with a hydraulic pallet lift. The rest of the space is taken up by offices and group meeting areas.
One of the lesser-known functions of Hudson Valley Foodworks is its co-packing services. Mike Perez, a former production manager at Nilda’s, now runs Hudson Valley Co-Packing with Milano. At its simplest level, says Manager John Borchard, the business is “for those people who have those great ideas and don’t know how to make them.”
Co-packers are the people who actually do the processing and packing for a business.
They know how to translate recipes, how to manage large equipment and quantities, how to package, and how to get the product on the trucks. “What we can do is help with the production side of it,” says Milano. “We can’t market products and we can’t help producers finance their business. To be successful, you must know how to source for your product and how to sell it. You have to have done the groundwork.”
As a specialty venture, Foodworks seems to have found its place. Through its users and co-packers, about 80 jobs have been created for area residents. “We are a niche boutique,” says Milano. “We can do the kind of custom hand work, like cutting pickles to specification, that a larger processor can’t do. Some of our successes have gotten too big for us, like Raw Indulgences and Monkey Muffins. They’ve had to move on. We are not economically efficient for a customer who needs large production. But for someone who wants niche boutique and niche start-up, we are here and can service them.”
Another bonus of renting space at Foodworks is the camaraderie. “Mostly everyone gets along and there is a lot of sharing. I borrowed some butter from Luc [Roels] the other day when I ran out, and we share equipment. It’s really helpful,” says Milano.
Still, Foodworks is only operating, on average, at 50 percent capacity, “although we’ve been very busy lately,” says Milano. “We’re at a financial point where we can finally think about making some big improvements, doing some work to the roof and upgrading the equipment.”
And Milano must be doing something right because he is regularly asked to speak to groups in other regions of the state and country about starting up their own community kitchens. “I get a call at least once a month, someone wants to tour this facility or to tell them how to start their own. I’m happy to share what I know and help people out. That’s what we do here.”
Square Bites: Ethnic Eats
“He wanted to combine savory and sweet,” says Richard Marmet, who, along with Rebecca Parish, started Square Bites as a snack alternative in 2006. “We were inspired by the flavors of classic street foods from around the world.”
Their fruit and vegetable bars are certainly distinctive. Carefully sourced spices are used to create four distinct varieties: Flavors of India; Cocoa and Mexican Spices; Pizza Margherita; and Coconut, Peanuts and Thai Spices.
The company began production at Foodworks just last February. “We were looking for a dedicated production space and wanted to be part of the Hudson Valley food scene, which is assuming so much prominence,” continues Marmet. “That’s how we found Jim and the Foodworks.”
Marmet and Parish both worked previously at Best Cellars, the New York City wine purveyors and stores, which Richard co-founded. They maintain the Square Bites offices in Soho, although Parish lives in the Valley full-time and has been working with Rhinebeck chef Bob Chambers on perfecting recipes.
Some local purveyors of these “world food bars” include Fleisher’s butcher shop in Kingston, Rhinebeck Health Foods, and Adams Fairacre Farms. By late summer, the snacks should be more widely available throughout the Valley and in New York City.
Luc Roels and his wife Pika did not set out to be in the food business. Roels worked out of his Big Indian, Ulster County home as a software manufacturer, until September 11 essentially ended the business.
“I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife, and wondering what we would do,” says Roels. “Maybe I’ll make some loaves of bread and bring them to farmers’ markets.” Pika answered: “What if I do my quiche? We can fit six into an oven, but only four of your loaves will fit.”
The quiches were an instant success. But the Roels understood that there is a considerable difference between working in a home kitchen and producing in a commercial environment. To grow, they would either have to equip their home kitchen — an investment they could not afford — or find a larger facility. They were on the verge of abandoning their burgeoning business when they heard about Hudson Valley Foodworks.
“I remember my first production here,” says Luc. “We did 80 quiches in 14 hours. We should have charged $250 a quiche.” But with help from Foodworks, the couple expanded their production to 2,000 a day. They now produce soups, tarts, salsas, pesto, risotto and other seasonal products, using fresh and local ingredients. Pika’s products are staples of many farmers’ markets and sell in more than 60 stores. Luc does co-packing as well, making frozen soups and working with Rick’s Picks.
“With Foodworks,” says Roels, “we can do production in a single day, and have time for marketing, sales and new-product development.”
A Peck of Pickles
I would not be able to do anything without these guys,” says Tracy Krawitt about Hudson Valley Foodworks’ Jim Milano and Hudson Valley Co-Packing’s Mike Perez.
In just three years, Krawitt’s business, Spacey Tracy’s Pickles, has grown from a single table at the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market to over 30 retail outlets, seven regional seasonal markets, and a plethora of county fair booths. Area bars feature Krawitt’s products, and her fried pickles have even been showcased on the local news.
Krawitt has a degree in early education, but chose (“much to my parents’ dismay,” she says) to tend bar instead. One day, she brought her homemade pickles to work, where one of the customers told her about Hudson Valley Foodworks. She credits Milano and Perez for helping her navigate the complicated system of FDA and other approvals, insurance, label design, and recipe reformulation for mass production.
The company is an example of co-packing at its most successful. Kravitt develops all the recipes (with produce that comes exclusively from area farms) and does the marketing. In the Foodworks kitchen, Mike handles the rest. “Mike and I go into the kitchen and work out the formulas,” she says. “But he’s the guy. He does it all.”
Her product line features standard favorites including pickled eggs, garlicky dill pickles, pickled green tomatoes, and sweet and spicy sunshine pickles. Horseradish pickles were about to make their debut at press time.
“It’s simple,” she says. “Without Foodworks, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”