Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of expert insight columns directed to entrepreneurial founder-leaders at start-up food and beverage companies. 

Ready to start making your new product? If you’ve passed your initial formulation hurdles, you’re ready to think about where to sell the item, an initial volume and how the food will be safely processed and packaged. Possibilities include a home kitchen, a commercial kitchen or co-manufacturing plant, just to name a few.

Match Production Location to Your Market

Many food entrepreneurs begin selling at farmers’ markets or single retail locations.  Using this approach, a commercial kitchen, pilot plant or innovation center (focused on food start-ups) could be a great way to begin. That’s because they can accommodate smaller batches and your direct involvement in the day-to-day food preparation.  

Conversely, other food start-ups might consider transitioning right from kitchen to multi-location retail distribution. Doing this means partnering with a contact manufacturer who can meet your expected processing, volume, and distribution needs. If you work on this larger scale, it can mean access to more specialized equipment and fewer manual processes. Using an FDA-registered facility—versus a commercial kitchen or pilot facility—also means you can make foods that need to be preserved under more controlled conditions such like canning or aseptic processing. Ultimately, these steps allow you to sell a food across a wider geography.

Local, state and federal health requirements for food manufacturing locations (and the markets where they’re sold) will govern what you can sell and the requirements for your location’s inspection.

For example, my home state of Pennsylvania does not allow sale of low-acid canned foods at farmers’ markets unless they are made in a FDA-approved facility that’s registered to do this kind of processing.  Most states follow a similar model because low-acid canned foods are very high risk if not processed correctly. On the other hand, some baked goods can be made in an in-home or home-style kitchen if registered and inspected by the state or county as a “Limited Food Facility.”  

Many types of foods can be made and stored at state or county-inspected facilities and, if sold in the immediate locale, could be good options for the short-term. Jams, condiments, seasoning blends, bakery products, syrups and nut spreads are just a few examples that work well for these markets. Wherever you plan to make your food, begin with county and state websites to connect with experts who can help you understand your options.

Be Prepared to Talk Details

Bring a portfolio of information when you meet with prospective partners to produce your food so they understand what you will bring into their market or facility.   This information also will come in handy for you to complete new food business licensing and registration documents.

Ideally, your commercialization partner should be able to understand exactly what your food is—and how to make it—solely by looking at your ingredient list, recipe, and procedural information. Put your recipe in an easily understood format with weights for each ingredient, known loss or dilution factors, total batch weight or percentage and the package fill weight at a minimum.

A process flow diagram or written procedure helps everyone understand what is needed and where potential risks and gaps are. Remember that a procedure is written differently from recipe instructions because it needs to be specific and measurable.

For example, you could say, “Mix for 10 minutes” versus, “Mix until blended,” or if you have a thickener with a specific gelatinization temperature, say, “Heat to 180°F and mix for 5 minutes” versus “Heat until thickened.”  If your process includes steps that need to be established by a third party to ensure food safety—such as hot-fill-and-hold, aseptic or retort processing—you will need to bring documentation from a “process authority” so these additional requirements can be discussed.  

In short, you ultimately can achieve the results you want to thoroughly preparing for the size and complexity of the scale-up you need.

About the Author

Lisa Thorsten, Principal, Thorsten Consulting LLC, has more than 35 years’ experience in the packaged and fresh foods business as a food scientist, nutritionist, quality manager and regulatory affairs leader for small and large food makers.  She has developed many new products and commercialized them in both small co-manufacturing and Fortune 100 food manufacturing operations. Reach her at lisa@thorstenllc.com.

Read preceding articles in this series here:

Considering a New Product Claim? Step Back First to Re-Assess Your Consumer

Food Start-Ups Elect to Commercialize with Simple Ingredients and Packaging