Sometimes, all it takes is a little push — a bit of advice, some words of encouragement — to help a business grow.
For the last six years, the Center for Innovative Food Technology has been giving a push to entrepreneurs and small businessmen by way of its annual Food Product Development Contest, which seeks to give a helping hand to people in the region who want to start marketing and selling their food products.
Last week, two winners were named for this year’s contest: Anthony Brubaker of Cygnet, Ohio, for his Reverend T’s BBQ Sauce, and David LaRoe of Grand Rapids, Ohio, for his LaRoe’s House Poppy Seed Dressing.
Both winners will receive practical and technical advice from the experts at the center, ranging from the ins and outs of business planning to everything they need to know about creating labels and testing for shelf stability. In addition, they will be able to make their products at the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen near Bowling Green, a commercially licensed professional kitchen with the equipment needed to process, make, and bottle food products.
Mr. LaRoe said the assistance offered “give[s] the entrepreneur the chance to flourish.”
Mr. LaRoe, 60, opened LaRoe’s Restaurant in Grand Rapids 36 years ago, and he estimated he has been serving the poppy seed dressing there for 35 of those years.
“People kept asking me, ‘Can I take some home? I can’t find anything like it in stores,’” he said.
The restaurant would give out small samples of the dressing in a to-go cup to patrons who would ask, but after becoming familiar with both the center and the cooperative kitchen, he decided to enter the contest.
Eventually, he said, “I would like to see us create a sister company to the restaurant where we could employ local people and really go to the market with it. Not even just regional. I think it could be a great small business, I really do.”
But first, there are obstacles to overcome. One of the biggest problems with selling salad dressings is that the ingredients tend to separate in the bottles: the vinegar stays on the bottom, the oil rests on top of that, and the poppy seeds float on top of it all. When they make it at the restaurant, they use high-speed blenders that emulsify the ingredients so they all stay blended together.
But mass producing the dressing will require large vats and industrial blenders, and the blenders Mr. LaRoe has seen so far do not move fast enough to create a permanent emulsion.
He said he has been assured by everyone at the organizations that they will be able to help him create a dressing that stays mixed.
For Mr. Brubaker, the road to winning the contest began with a passion rather than a profession.
For the past several years, he has been serving barbecue to the Bowling Green State University football team the day before they begin their punishing two-a-day workouts. The service has grown into what he hopes has become a BGSU tradition.
Apparently, it goes over well. “A kid from the Bowling Green football team said, “Man, you’ve got to sell this,’” he said.
He has the professional chops to do it. Now 42, he is a veteran of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm — the first war in Iraq. While he was still in the military, he went to the prestigious culinary school at Johnston & Wales University. After graduation, he worked at a series of restaurants in Virginia before returning to Ohio with his new bride.
He now works as a property manager in Findlay, but cooking is still in his blood.
“With the past several years, I really developed a passion for low and slow hickory pit barbecue. I wanted to develop a sauce that suited my likes and desires, which was a bold barbecue sauce with understated sweetness. It’s not very sweet at all.
“It’s like a trip from Kansas City to Texas. It starts out with the tomato base of a Kansas City barbecue sauce. Then you travel down to Memphis, where you pick up a little bit of the tang of the Memphis sauce, with the understated sweetness that Memphis loves. Then you finish off your journey with the big, grand spices of Tex-Mex barbecue: cumin and garlic and coffee and apple cider vinegar,” he said.
That combination became the basis for Reverend T’s BBQ Sauce — the T is for Tony, his nickname, and the Reverend is because he is an ordained minister and an associate pastor of the non-denominational Basic Truth Church, near Cygnet.
And maybe some day he will become a major producer of barbecue sauce.
“I’m very Ohio proud. I have roots in northwest Ohio. Those [local] stores that would embrace a local product are the stores I would love to be in. And from there, wherever the wind blows. Eventually, I would love to take this nationwide, but — one step at a time,” he said.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.