Last summer, a guy named Tom Stevens told BW that he had just started bottling the best garlic olive oil on the planet.
"The best on the planet?" we thought. "Yeah, we hear that a lot." But Stevens lives in Boise, and he wanted to visit our offices and saddle us up with some samples. When he arrived, what he offered, with a piece of bread for dipping, was an extra virgin olive oil infused with roasted garlic. It was a subtle concoction in which the garlic was undeniably present, but not at all overpowering.
We were impressed, and what sealed our enthusiasm wasn't the fact that Extravagonzo was a brand-spanking-new product, but the fact that it was a locally brewed and bottled Idaho original.
It all started in Austin, Texas, where Stevens had lived for nine years before moving to Boise. He'd discovered a similar product that he said had the essence of garlic, but not the full flavor. When he moved to Boise, he decided he could do better, put together a test batch and sent it out to family and friends.
"They raved about it," said Stevens. So after six months of product development, he bottled his first batch in June 2007 and sold his first bottle at the Capital City Saturday Market in downtown Boise. Less than a year later, he's selling his Extravagonzo Roasted Garlic Infused Olive Oil in roughly 90 locations throughout the Northwest.
Although the recipe and product line is his brainchild, Stevens can't operate out of his home kitchen according to FDA regulations; he needs to use a commercial kitchen. And since Extravagonzo is now his full-time occupation, he needed a strong business tack to pull it all together financially. The University of Idaho Food Technology Center in Caldwell provided him with both.
"You always know when Tom is here because you can smell the garlic in the parking lot," said Jim Toomey, director of the facility's Business and Technology Incubator program. A simple, warehouse facility on the outside, the food tech center serves two functions: It's a research and development facility for large companies, and it's open to the public as a commercial kitchen that provides equipment and assistance to local start-ups.
Stevens first approached the center in January last year, while in his initial product-development phase. Facility manager Drew Dalgetty helped Stevens refine his process in the kitchen, while Toomey's small-business incubator program aided Stevens in developing viable business and marketing plans.
"I really emphasize the expertise here because commercial kitchens do fail. It's the expertise here—not the equipment—that people come here for," said Toomey. "Drew and Cini have so much experience."
Cini Baumhoff is plant supervisor at the center. It's her job to rotate all of the center's users in and out of the door without incident and explain to newcomers just what the kitchen is capable of handling. She also brings years of experience in the specialty-food market to her job as the daughter of Dorothy Baumhoff, the woman who launched Homemade by Dorothy's, one of Idaho's most successful homegrown food businesses, from the basement of her home.
Baumhoff's instinct and Dalgetty's ability to synthesize recipes, coupled with realistic business advice offered by the center, help reign in those people with ideas that they're going to turn their grandmother's cinnamon recipe into millions of dollars.
"We get people coming in with grandiose ideas that they'll be on big-store shelves," said Toomey. "We tell them Wal-Mart and Winco are good places to buy ingredients, not to sell their product." Realistically, he said, the Boise Co-op and farmers' markets are the most receptive and successful markets for them.
Toomey said the biggest challenge clients will face isn't how to properly scale a recipe to make 500 bottles rather than three bottles; after all, that's just math. The real problem is getting a good commercial label with an appropriate graphic to market the product. And rather than simply producing and selling a single product, Toomey said the center stresses the importance of lateral growth with a line of related products. Still, as Baumhoff said, not all recipes cut the mustard.
"And sometimes you have to say it's no good," admitted Baumhoff.
However, according to Stevens, once you get the nod of approval from Baumhoff and Dalgetty, you're rolling.
"If you have a food idea Drew and Cini feel is reasonable, 'produceable' and will make a profit for you, they'll jump right on it to help you figure out your production process."
They may even give you a recipe.
Paul Hazen is the founder and chef behind BB Wolfe Foods, a line of sauces with just enough fire behind them to light you up from the inside out. He started tinkering with a hot wing sauce recipe about 15 years ago, but only recently went out to the food technology center to get serious about it.
A full-time government worker, Hazen said his sauce obsession is just a hobby for now, however, five restaurants in the state slather his wing sauce on their chicken. He's also grown his business laterally, developing and bottling a verde taco sauce and a habanero ketchup—a recipe that belonged to Dalgetty—and putting the finishing touches on a spicy fry sauce and a jalapeno mustard. And then there's his uber-specialty product, what he likes to call "liquid death." It's a sauce he has yet to concoct but he's currently growing Naga Jolokia, or Indian ghost peppers—the world's hottest pepper—to use in the sauce.
When it comes time to develop his liquid death recipe, Hazen will once again seek the advice of the food-center sages. He said that when he approaches them with a new idea, they connect him with area growers and producers who provide him with local products for his sauces. In his wing sauce, for example, Hazen said about 30 percent of every bottle he produces is local honey from a beekeeper in Marsing.
"I'm amazed at all the good work those guys at the food center do," Hazen said. "They really make it doable. I can guarantee you they have absolutely no interest in making money. They want me to be successful."
About 70 companies statewide can make that same statement. Wander the Boise Co-op, the mall's Marketplace gift store or Boise's farmers' market and you'll recognize a few names from the center's roster, including Mom's Specialty Mustards, Litehouse, Flying Squirrel nuts, Los Pastores and Donya Marie's. BB Wolfe sauces and Extravagonzo are among them as well.
Hazen said that eventually he plans to focus BB Wolfe into more business than hobby, and when he does, he'll be holding onto the food tech center's hand the whole way for help.
For Stevens, however, he's already about to outgrow the center's facilities.
"I'm stuck in a Catch-22, where I've got this fabulous product, I have people who believe in it. Everywhere I go they try it and buy it and put it on the shelf, but soon, my productivity won't meet my needs," he said. A garlic roasted olive oil he can barely keep in stock? Maybe it really is the best on the planet.