Test kitchens for small business

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NOT ONLY DO FARMERS MARKETS GIVE LOCAL GROWERS A PLACE TO SELLTHEIR HARVEST, THEY ALSO SERVE AS AN INCUBATOR FOR SMALL BUSINESSES WITH BARGAIN-BASEMENT START-UPCOSTS

At Bluffton, rent is $15 per market for farmers, $25 for specialty food vendors. At Port Royal, it’s just $20.

Vendors get immediate focus groups for their products as they hand out samples and watch people’s facial expressions and jot down initial comments.

With more than 120 farmers markets in South Carolina, the state Department of Agriculture created the S.C. Specialty Food Association and S.C. Farmers Market Association. They offer education, tips and networking to help makers and managers make a go of it.

However, one Hilton Head market that nurtured several successful businesses closed last year.

When Pamela and Peter Ovens started the Hilton Head market at Honey Horn 2011, their goal was to provide residents and visitors a source of local, and hopefully organic, produce. Pamela Ovens said there is a “joyfulness” about farmers markets.

The Ovenses set high standards. Pamela or Peter visited each farm themselves to make sure what they brought to sell was locally grown. They didn’t allow pets at the market because of concerns about contaminating the food and noted that some vendors didn’t even want their customers to touch their produce, preferring that they just point at what they wanted.

However, when she heard the Hilton Head Recreation Association was opening a market at Shelter Cove this spring, she decided to call it quits, despite pleas from vendors.

“It was sad for us,” Ovens said. “We forfeited our market because they would have cannibalized both markets. We couldn’t do that to the vendors.”

Bluffton Brittle

Barrett Collins developed a following for her peanut brittle when as a mortgage banker, realtors asked for it to give as gifts to clients. When the economy hit the skids in 2009, Collins enrolled in a 10-week entrepreneur class offered at Lowcountry Technical College, eager to investigate if her hobby could become a livelihood. The classes point students toward either high-grow paths or “lifestyle” paths that progress more slowly. Collins followed the latter, and at last, put her dormant home economics degree to work.

“I was a mad scientist and my Bunsen burner was the stove.” She set her sights on the Farmers Market in Bluffton, but she had to wait.

“When I started in 2009, it took me about a year to get in there. You make sales immediately being at a farmers market. There are people who make a full-time living and that’s how they support their families. I’m a micoentrepreneur.

I created a job for myself. Some of these people are retired Ph.D.s who sell beef or are Italian centurions.”

She said part of the appeal of farmers markets is “the adventure,” adding that “customers hear the passion from the vendors. I can’t say enough about farmers markets. They are springing up everywhere. Going to them could be a full-time job.

“There is a lot of love that go into these jars and packages. My goal is to have my own commercial kitchen. I’m not about growing fast. I wanted a lifestyle business.”

Sawmill Creek Smokehouse

Daniel Harms catapulted past farmers markets in record time. He and his father had always made smoked beef products, going back to their days in Irving, Texas, before moving to Hilton Head Island in 1995.

“We started making so much of it, we had to start charging our friends and family for it,” Harms said.

The idea for a food business grew in inverse proportion to his disillusionment with a career in health care, despite his recent master’s degree in health administration from MUSC.

He set up a booth at the former Honey Horn market to test the waters and his career changed directions.

“I wanted to get the product out in the community to find out what people liked and didn’t like. It was product development and definitely a stepping stone.”

He soon was selling beef jerky to Piggy Wiggly, area golf courses, Harbour Town General Store and Bluffton Market.

The Harmses went full bore and converted their garage into a smokehouse.

“In 2011, I spent the year remodeling garage to meet USDA code and it wasn’t approved until December 2011. We weren’t able to make any money that year. We might not have done it if we had known how much it was going to cost.”

With certification accomplished, they’re expanding the plant and tripling capacity. Harms no longer has time to staff booths at farmers markets. “I would love to be at every single one. Until I can hire someone to be out there, I just won’t be able to.”

The smokehouse is shifting its focus from human to pet treats, a demand spurred by tainted treats made in China.

“We’re going to shift to primarily a pet treat company. We just shipped an order to Norway. All these China recalls have given us an opportunity. Abby Wirth at Tail-Waggers Pet Bakery called me after that and asked if I would consider making jerky for dogs.”

Inadvertently, he had already been testing the market. “I have three dogs, so if a batch went bad or I didn’t like it, I gave it to the dogs.”

Frommer’s Natural Foods

Matt Frommer started developing trail mixes for himself and friends while a student at Johnson & Wales University Culinary School in Charlotte because he couldn’t find any natural options on the market. His quest was sparked when he learned more about food, including “the darker side of what used to not matter: genetically modified ingredients, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.”

After his graduation last year, Frommer Googled nearby restaurants and businesses to see who might be interested in his products. His first “nibble” came from Bess’ Deli and Catering, who carried his products and let him rent their kitchen.

He set up at the Honey Horn market and the ball began rolling. Now, he also makes trail mixes under the Salty Dog label and the Frommer’s product line has mushroomed, from trail mixes to granola to powered proteins for blender drinks.

When Honey Horn announced it wasn’t going to continue, he moved to the Port Royal Farmers Market in December, then added Sea Pines, Shelter Cove and Bluffton. He figures he’s working 70 to 80 hours a week, between selling at  farmers markets and cooking.

“I want to get into stores, like Whole Foods or something, but running the market is fun, too.”

He considers the farmers markets “focus groups,” giving him immediate feedback on new products. “I’m making a living.”