Sustainability | Agriculture | Ecotrope

An incubator for Northwest food innovations

Ecotrope | May 13, 2011 2 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:38 p.m.

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Kim Malek serves up her Farm to Cone strawberry ice cream, made with cream from Oregon's Lochmead Dairy, locally grown strawberries, honey-balsamic vinegar and Pohnpei pepper.

Kim Malek serves up her Farm to Cone strawberry ice cream, made with cream from Oregon's Lochmead Dairy, locally grown strawberries, honey-balsamic vinegar and Pohnpei pepper.

So you want to open an ice cream shop. You’ve dreamed about it for years.

Not just any old ice cream shop. One rooted in fresh, locally sourced foods and fantastic flavor combinations: pears and blue cheese, strawberries and honey-balsamic vinegar, melon and cured ham. Beer ice cream. Bacon ice cream. A celebration of Oregon’s finest locally grown ingredients! Yum!

But do you know how to make commercially viable beer ice cream? Do you know what kind of packaging will you need? Where will you test all your fanciful recipes?

One place you could go is Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center in northwest Portland. That’s what Kim Malek did after she quit her job and cashed in her 401(k) to start up Salt & Straw ice cream shop.

There she found a test kitchen and a network of food specialists to help make her ice cream dreams come true. She rented the kitchen space and paid an hourly rate for expert advice, and this month she’ll be setting up shop in northeast Portland.

“I was having a hard time getting off the dime,” said Malek. “I needed a place to incubate this idea. As a small business you don’t have the money to go through a lot of trial and error. Here we get to work with world-class scientists and an incredible network of people at OSU.”

Making fair-trade vanilla ice cream at Oregon State University's Food Innovation Center in Portland.

Making fair-trade vanilla ice cream at Oregon State University's Food Innovation Center in Portland.

Bridging the urban-rural divide

I met Malek while touring the Center on Thursday and had to drag myself away after tasting her strawberry ice cream (laced with honey-balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with Pohnpei pepper).

I had hoped to see some examples of food innovation in action and quiz Center director Michael Morrissey about what his experiment station was up to. Success!

The Food Innovation Center is one of OSU’s agricultural experiment stations. It’s agricultural research … in the city.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important agriculture is to the city,” Morrissey said. “Food is often the bridge between the urban and rural communities. We’re supporting that linkage between agriculture and healthy living and sustainability.”

Oregon isn’t like the Midwest, he said, where big farms grow a lot of corn, soybeans and wheat. There are more than 200 crops growing on Oregon farms, which can make for a diverse local food industry.

Scientists at the Innovation Center work mostly with small companies and entrepreneurs to develop concepts and test new products – with longer shelf life, lean, sleek packaging, more natural ingredients, or a competitive edge.

“Entrepreneurs have their nose to the ground. They’re watching consumer trends because it’s their livelihood,” he said. “They have the know-how but maybe not the technical expertise they need to develop a new product.”

Among the Center’s success stories is Marie Osmunson, who went from making 3,000 of her homegrown veggie patties a week to 2,000 patties a day after she landed deals with Zupan’s and Burgerville (then came Fred Meyer and other grocery chains, too). Mike Seeley of Seeley Mint Farm in Clatskanie tapped the Center’s expertise to develop a successful brand of mint tea. The Center has also left its mark on Pacific Natural soups, Umpqua oats, Kambucha Wonder Drink and others:

Several Northwest products that have gotten a boost from OSU's Food Innovation Center.

Several Northwest products that have gotten a boost from OSU's Food Innovation Center.

Using focus groups and taste tests at the Center, Ann Colonna can get an idea of whether a new product idea will work. She’s learned, for example, that people prefer the taste raw-milk cheese to pasteurized-milk cheese – even after they knew which one they were sampling. And not by a slim margin, either. Out of a group of 900 people, she said, nearly 70 percent preferred raw-milk cheese (which could face tighter regulations soon from the Food and Drug Administration).

“Hopefully the FDA will pick up on this,” she said.

The Center has helped tuna processors develop lighter, flexible packaging that saves money, preserves more flavor and omega-3 fatty acids, and reduces the environmental footprint. It’s also free of bisphenol A.

Product Development Manager Sarah Masoni helped Portland chef Vitale Paley bring an all-natural fruit and nut bar to market. Lately, she’s been helping a lot of folks meet quality and safety standards for packaging their barbecue sauces (just in time for summer, they hope).

In another wing of the Center, Dr. Qingyue Ling is adapting radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to trace food from the farm to its final destination  – and back again in case of contamination or a product recall. He has tags and tag readers of all shapes and sizes to improve food traceability.

What’s next? Why not market your own recipe! Maybe an invasive species concoction? The Innovation Center helped develop a 13-week course that will teach you how to turn your favorite homegrown recipe into a product. Some food for thought …

Three more please!

Three more please!

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