Colorado State University program has menu of ways to help food startups

The kitchen facilities at Colorado State University’s Spur campus had Farnosh Family at “steam jacketed kettle.”

The Denver woman has made ghee, a type of clarified better that originated in India centuries ago, to sell at farmers markets and online since 2021. The big kettle that has a lever to tip it and pour is a dream come true for the businesswoman who has been brewing “micro batches” in her home.

The kettle was the first thing Family noticed while on a tour of CSU Spur’s food innovation center. She has been using the equipment since June to test her recipe and figure out the next steps necessary to grow her business and reach more customers.

“This has been really great for me to visualize a path forward,” Family said. “If I want to go into wholesaling and be able to have large production, I need to know how this works, what kind of yield I can expect and how long it takes.”

Family is one of a handful of entrepreneurs using the kitchen in the Terra building at the CSU Spur campus, which is on the National Western Center grounds in north Denver.

Terra, Latin for “earth,” is one of three large buildings on the campus. The on-site activities focus on different aspects of agriculture. The other buildings are Vida, Spanish for “life,” which showcases CSU’s nationally renowned veterinary program and equine sports medicine; and Hydro, Greek for “water,” which includes education programs around Colorado’s status as a headwaters state.

Construction of all three buildings was completed around the first of 2023.

Michael Gabel, director of the food innovation center at Terra, said the services that Family and other businesspeople are using mesh well with CSU Spur’s emphasis on education as a lifelong pursuit.

University officials have also talked about the campus as a place to connect urban residents with the people who produce their food and explore the impacts of the state’s lands and waters on Coloradans’ way of life.

“We’re really set up to support food entrepreneurs, to provide a space,” Gabel said.

Gabel and Nicholas Trujillo, operations manager for the food innovation center, also provide technical support. Family said she consults with the two as she does research and development aimed at expanding her food line, Sun Ghee. The products include the original, standard product and others infused with different herbs and spices.

A couple of catering companies use the space as a commissary. The 2,681-square-foot kitchen, which takes up a large section of the first floor, is lined with new, gleaming silver stove tops, refrigerators — equipment of all kinds. Like workspaces throughout Terra and the other two buildings, windows running the length of the kitchen allow people to watch what’s going on.

Across the hall from the kitchen are three food laboratories with industrial equipment to process meat, dairy and produce. Gabel said people might use the lab to turn cucumbers picked from the greenhouse on top of the building into pickles or milk into yogurt or ice cream. Others want to develop new products.

“Or say a food bank got a big donation of potatoes or carrots. They could have them peeled and washed and sliced. It makes the process go a lot easier,” Gabel said.

People who use the kitchen and food center at Terra pay, but on a sliding scale. Gabel said the staff works closely with area food incubators to help budding entrepreneurs and startups take the next steps.

“I give the example of if you had your grandmother’s recipe and you say everybody raves about this recipe and you want to get it in Costco or Safeway, what would you do?” Gabel asked.

The food innovation center can give guidance on product development, the commercially available ingredients that can be used, developing food-safety plans and finding a production space.

Gabel said the center tries to cater to local entrepreneurs, especially those in the nearby neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

Hilda Ndikum, who owns the catering business Delice Afro-Caribbean Cuisine, started using the commissary kitchen at the food innovation center in June. The kitchen she used before is farther from her Denver home and less centrally located. She believes having access to the kitchen on the Spur campus “will absolutely help me grow my business.”

“I delivered lunch to a group of people at Metropolitan State University downtown a couple weeks ago,” Ndikum said. “It was great because the kitchen was right there and I was just a few minutes away from where they needed the food.”

Ndikum has access to supplies and equipment through the food innovation center she wouldn’t have otherwise. “That really helps me. Since I’m still a newer, small business, I don’t really have a lot of equipment for my catering business.”

Ndikum, who is orginally from Cameroon, has wanted to run her own catering business for a while. She got her license two years ago.

“It’s a passion of mine. I used to just cook at home and entertain family and friends and would help out if my friends had birthday parties or weddings,” Ndikum said.

Another feature available to the food startups is a sensory evaluation center, what Trujillo calls the “golden goose” of the operation. Consumer data are put together based on focus groups and taste tests.

“We supply the panelists, the data gathering,” Trujillo said. “To me, that is where a lot of smaller businesses who might not have a fully built (research and development) program can get a lot of good data.”

Blend of flavors, cultures

Family has a lot of the basics involved in starting a food business “buckled down,” Trujillo said.

“She came through and was enticed by our steam jacket kettle, so that was kind of her push to us. She’s doing great scaling up right now. She’s finding success, and so we’re looking into having her now move from kind of the R&D (research and development) aspect into a production aspect,” Trujillo said.

The staff also aims to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to network as well as provide ongoing education and support for more established businesspeople and CSU’s own staff, Trujillo said.

Family is eager to continue on the journey she has started at CSU Spur. In many ways, her journey started with the practice of Ayurveda, a holistic approach to health care that has ancient roots in India.

“My business started from a health and wellness journey for myself first, where I used Ayurveda to heal and feel better after my kids. I worked with individual clients, their own health and wellness journeys and ghee was a part of that,” said Family, who teaches yoga.

Family, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, started making ghee for her clients and then sold it at farmers markets. She likes talking to people about the health benefits of ghee, which is considered anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.

“It’s essentially the oil of butter so it’s the butter after it’s been filtered to remove the milk solids, like the lactose,” Family said. “It doesn’t require refrigeration and has a high smoke point, which is why people like to cook with it because it won’t burn or oxidize away like butter or olive oil do.”

Family uses products from dairy farmers whose cows are grass-fed and who use practices meant to boost the resiliency and nutrition of the soil. Her products include ghee with cardamom, black pepper and ginger, and rosemary and sage. She likes mixing the traditional with the more Western types of flavors.

“We love that mix of things because that’s also just a big part of who we are,” Family said. “I’m an immigrant. I’m from Iran. My husband is Mexican, so we just have that blend of cultures, languages and tastes in our home.”

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