Many different types of expertise are involved in bringing a food product to market—to take raw crops in farm fields and make them into finished products ready for shoppers to add to their grocery carts.
Entrepreneurs in the food sector often start with a product in mind. They may be armed with a great recipe, but have little sense of the concerns involved in scaling up: sourcing,food science, food safety, branding, distribution—or they may be aware of these concerns but have no idea how to approach them.
Contract Comestibles, of East Troy, aims to be a one-stop shop for these business owners, letting them concentrate on what they know best and are passionate about, and taking care of the rest. “We try to the way for entrepreneurs to get started within the food industry,” says Kevin Custer, national sales manager for the company, which employs about 30.
The company itself is a passion project for owner Andy Gehl, who resigned in 2011 from his position as president of Gehl Foods in Germantown. Gehl Foods, which has since been acquired by a Chicago private equity firm, pioneered a shelf-stable bag-in-box cheese sauce now widely used by restaurants and food vendors around the world. The company began in 1896, and Gehl was part of the fourth generation of his family to run it.
When he purchased Contract Comestibles in 2012, the idea of giving startups a boost appealed to him. So did the idea of small-batch products made from natural, local ingredients. Contract Comestibles’ products include Once Upon a Salad and Once Upon a Grill dressings and sauces and Pick Pocket Dips, both of which are being sampled this week at IFT15, the international food and beverage sector trade show in Chicago. (At IFT15? Stop by booth #4956 to learn more.) Pick Pocket Dips’ hummus is available on flights by Virgin Airlines, United and Jet Blue; the hummus, which is available in red pepper, BBQ, sriracha and brownie flavors, appeals to airlines because it does not require refrigeration.
Wisconsin is an ideal location for a company like Contract Comestibles, says Custer: although its name is not on a single grocery store label, it helps multiple companies with every aspect of the business, so it needs a workforce with knowledge and experience in all areas of the food industry. In addition, when Contract Comestibles needs various food processing equipment, pre-owned equipment is easy to find in Wisconsin, which ranks first in the nation for food product machinery manufacturing.
Since buying the company, Gehl has set his sights on expansion, adding new product lines and starting to plan for additional plants in different regions of the country. “Typically, niche-based products are already pretty expensive,” says Custer. These new regional facilities would help keep costs low for entrepreneurs by cutting transportation expense, for example.
Several dozen Wisconsin companies, along with industry trade groups and research and economic development partners, are participating in the In Wisconsin® exhibit at IFT15. Stop by booth 4956 or check back later at the Events Blog to learn more.