The non-disclosure agreements at the door didn’t bode well for this article. But I should have predicted this, I thought, as I peeked behind the gate in UH Maui College’s Pa‘ina cafeteria building and caught a glimpse of Maui’s latest batch of food innovators, putting the final touches on their presentations. The room was lined with cutting-edge creations, the eager ideas cooked up by Maui residents, shrouded in secrecy as these students of UH Maui College’s Maui Food Innovation Center poised to be the first to bring these concepts to the local market.
I made a beeline to Gary Albitz, the instructor of MFIC’s eight-week Food Akamai incubator program, who guarded the gate while the curious audience signed NDAs and milled in Pa‘ina’s foyer.
“So just how serious is this non-disclosure agreement, really?” I asked him.
Albitz assured me that while some concepts remain under wraps, anyone who was willing to speak with the press on the record was OK by him. Journalist’s dilemma soothed, he modified my NDA, and soon after I was in the door.
Fourteen concepts were on display at different tables, products of the Food Akamai Program’s latest cohort of students. Food Akamai combines Maui College’s culinary facilities with content from its Applied Business Information Technology (ABIT) credit program, Albitz said, including the idea of a “lean startup.”
“Formerly, people used to create a business plan and spend months carving it out and honing it down,” he told me. “Lean startup has people get a good sense of things, and then actually go out and ask questions of their potential audience.”
That’s where the inaugural food launch event comes in. After eight weeks of getting in-class suggestions and improving food concepts, the course culminated in the event, giving students real-world experience by allowing them to bring their concepts to consumers on a small scale. More than an exclusive showcase of never-before-seen eats, it was a venue for the food pioneers to get feedback and incorporate notes on their concepts. Texture, taste, sweetness, packaging concepts, ingredients, and other variables were discussed as the audience, divided into small groups, went from table to table and sampled as they went along.
Beyond flavor and concept, logistics of food manufacturing on Maui were also taught in the course. “All the health requirements and having them go through safety inspections and getting your permits – they learned all that stuff,” Albitz said. “The food was developed in a certified kitchen, so they were able to figure out how to do all of that. They’ve gone from concept to an actual ‘something’ on the table. That was pretty amazing.”
One of the most successful “somethings” of the night was a plant-based nacho “cheese” dip made by Jessica Ross, who won the Judge’s Choice Award for the night.
“My concept is plant-based comfort foods for busy people. I develop products and recipes for people like myself who want healthier versions of comforting foods. I’ve been perfecting my plant-based nacho cheese and cashew sour cream recipes for years based on what my kids, husband, and friends like most,” Ross told me.
Take it from this writer, who would never elect to eat a veggie burger: I would gladly dive in a pot of that plant-based nacho dip.
Ross added that the program has been a great help in getting her concept off the ground.
“I am currently in the Concept to Consumer Incubator Program (CCIP) which is the next class in the Food Innovation Center’s program. I’m currently learning about food safety, the chemistry of the food, safe production practices, and I’m very excited to learn how to make my product more shelf stable. I’m planning to take the next class as well which is the X-celerator course. My products are still evolving and I’m still learning so much.”
The showcase was an “amazing” part of the experience that allowed Ross to get feedback from the local community that makes up her target market.
“Since the final showcase I have registered my business, gotten my website started and some social media accounts, VioletandJack.com and on Insta @violetandjack. I named my business after my two babies. Whats next is packaging modifications, Upcountry Farmers Market, and seeing how my business grows from there. Eventually I’d love to be in local health food stores and specialty shops, and potentially partner with local restaurants.”
In the age of growing interest in buying local, and a need to revitalize the potential of the local community, the MFIC programs offer an entrance point for those needing the extra push in making their concept a real product. Ross gave some advice to innovators with a curiosity about bringing an idea to market.
“I will say to those other entrepreneurs and folks interested in starting their own business that getting educated through this program is invaluable. Not only does it provide the information you need, it also gives you the confidence you need. Business stuff is intimidating to me and getting educated makes me feel like I can manage it, make more informed decisions, and ultimately save my business money… These classes are worth the time investment, 100 percent.”
Learn more about the Maui Food Innovation Center at Maui.hawaii.edu/foodinnovation/
Images courtesy MFIC