Food innovation center officially opens

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Chilton County Chamber of Commerce sponsored a ribbon cutting Tuesday for the Chilton Food Innovation Center.

The Chilton Food Innovation Center officially opened Tuesday in Clanton.

The center, which has been operating for a few months, helps food growers and producers as well as business entrepreneurs get food products ready for market.

The Chilton County Chamber of Commerce sponsored a ribbon cutting Tuesday for the fully equipped industrial kitchen. The center is located at 12 First Avenue in Clanton (the old Adair school).

Food made at the center must be acidified due to health department regulations, but that includes things like salsa, pickled products, some relishes and salad dressings, jams and jellies, chipotle and more.

All that is required is to fill out an application, which is subject to approval by the Innovation Center’s board of directors.

Board member J. Sam Johnson said he hopes the center will have long-term economic benefits for those in the produce industry.

“I want to see it develop as a small-business incubator that spawns multiple successful businesses that draw from the produce of central Alabama,” Johnson said.

Though a standalone non-profit, the center is supported by the Chilton County Extension Office and several other agencies.

Those behind the center hope it will allow more of Chilton County’s produce to be made into marketable products.

Produce that might have otherwise been thrown away because of over-ripening or size (as much as 30 percent) can be made into jams, jellies, salsa and other things people want to buy.

“It’s one of those things I’ve heard talked about all my life,” Johnson said. “We’re throwing away produce even though it’s totally usable.”

Growers also faced the challenge of not having a processing center. Alabama law requires that all retail foods be processed within an inspected kitchen. The costs of processing centers are far beyond the reach of most growers, said Gay West, Alabama Cooperative Extension System coordinator.

“It’s an idea that has been tossed around for a long time,” West said. “Unfortunately, it’s a big undertaking and not something that only a couple of people can do on their own.”

The building was donated by the Chilton County Board of Education, while the Chilton Research and Extension Center donated kitchen equipment.

Jim Pitts, superintendent of the research and extension center, said the project was a group effort.

“All of us university folks out here are like cousins — we’ve all got the same kinfolk,” Pitts said. “Whether we’re Cooperative Extension or Research, it’s all about connecting people with questions to people with answers. It takes all of us to make it work.”

A grant from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and additional funding from the Cawaco Resource Conservation and Development Council enabled the board to bring on food scientist Christy Mendoza to manage the center.

Since opening last September, one client of the center has made a blueberry dessert topping and blueberry chipotle sauce. Another makes a barbecue sauce.

The building is rented out by the hour to clients. They prepare all the food and are responsible for cleaning up after themselves. The center also acts as a consultant and will help people develop recipes or other ideas.

For more information about the center, call Mendoza at (205) 280-6268.