Portraits of innovation
There’s an entertaining sense of chaos on Sarah Masoni’s desk. Protein bars, water bottles, and granola sit amid paperwork, books, and photographs. “A lot of people are nervous about getting help with their food businesses,” she said. “My office is entertaining on purpose, to help people relax.”
Masoni, the product development manager at the experiment station, helps dreams become reality. “I’ve always had a passion for food,” she said. “I’ve had jobs in the food industry, mostly with product development, since 1987. I know a lot of people in the industry; it’s easy for me to connect people.”
At the first consultation, Masoni asks clients to bring their product. She talks with them about their dreams and the practicalities of launching a food business. Masoni offers seminars on food science and business topics, at what she calls the “10,000-foot level.” She introduces concepts of product formulation, nutrition labeling, food safety, shelf-life testing, and packaging. She also partners with Portland Community College’s (PCC) Small Business Development Center, which manages the Getting Your Recipe to Market program. The Food Innovation Center hosts opportunities for PCC’s program to showcase new food products and allow budding entrepreneurs to meet with buyers.
The center has left its mark on the Pacific Northwest economy. Clients have included Kombucha Wonder Drink, Red Hills Fruit Company, Wheat Springs Bakery, Romano’s Italian Soda, Pacific Natural soups, Salt and Straw Fresh Made Ice Cream, and Seeley Mint Farm. It helps 400 to 500 entrepreneurs per year, according to Masoni.
Here are four of their stories.
Betsy Langton — Betsy’s Best Bar None
While training for a second career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner at the Oregon Department of Corrections, Betsy Langton facilitated a support group for men about to be released from prison. “I grew very fond of these men and I listened to their stories,” Langton said. Their stories inspired her to provide employment opportunities for former inmates transitioning from prison. And so, Betsy’s Best Bar None was born—vegan, organic, gluten-free, high-energy, nutritious bars.
The Portland woman had a great idea, but no business or commercial baking experience. So she consulted with Sarah Masoni, product development manager at OSU’s Food Innovation Center. She took Masoni’s class, which introduced her to entrepreneurship—everything from packaging to ingredients and nutritional density.
“The Food Innovation Center was like a castle on the hill for me, with all of the amazing information to incubate food businesses,” Langton said. “The center is our birthplace. It’s been a vibrant and vital place to be.” Now Langton leases space at the center’s commercial kitchen to manufacture her product. Her cayenne chocolate chip and lemon coconut bars, among others, are sold at farmers markets, grocery stores, and food co-ops. And she will soon hire her first employee—a former inmate.
Connie Rawlings-Dritsas — Blossom Vinegars
Apple jalapeno. Blueberry basil. Mango habanero. These are some of the flavors of Blossom Vinegars, the brainchild of Connie Rawlings-Dritsas, a successful corporate consultant with a passion for gardening. “ I want to say it was an accident, but I don’t believe in accidents,” she said. “My biggest inspiration came several years ago when I changed how I ate. I stopped eating sugar.” When she couldn’t find sugarless salad dressing, she experimented making her own. It was a hit with her family and friends. Blossom Vinegars was born.
A class at the Food Innovation Center reinforced her business aspirations. After seven years of manufacturing vinegars, she needed help with a second product line. With the new product idea, she worked closely with Sarah Masoni, FIC product development manager. Masoni had always been available to connect her with local resources and assist with nutrition labeling, but now they worked even closer together. “Sarah helped me with the formulation of the drinking vinegars. Her advice helped me design the perfect formulas for them.” Now you can find her no-sugar fruited vinegars and drinking vinegars at stores, farmers markets, and restaurants as far away as Maine.
Jason Pastega — Skout Natural Foods
Jason Pastega has twin passions: natural food and hiking. Combining the two happened in 2008, when he set out to create a totally natural, healthy trail bar. That same year he started collaborating with Masoni at the Food Innovation Center. “The rest is history,” Pastega said.
“It was just an incredible impact,” he said. “OSU’s Food Innovation Center has been the key to being able to do what I’m doing for the company, from developing recipes to finding a manufacturer to landing vendors and packaging suppliers.”
Now Skout Natural Foods trail bars are available at more than 200 locations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The name was inspired by Pastega’s beloved yellow Labrador. The trail bars are certified organic, gluten-free, vegan, and soy free, and come in flavors ranging from cherry vanilla to apple cinnamon. The Pastega family operates the business together. “Without the Food Innovation Center, it would have cost me a lot more money and taken a lot more time to get my products to market, because I would have had to find all the information myself versus getting comprehensive help in one place,” Pastega said.
Betsy Walton — Our Favorite Foods
“I learned how to pickle from my mom; she had a big garden, and nothing went to waste,” said Betsy Walton, whose family treasured her grandmother’s recipe for pickled cucumbers. One day Betsy’s husband, Duke, suggested adding a little heat to the recipe, and a spicy pickle made from farm-fresh produce emerged.
Walton became a food entrepreneur following a dynamic career in product marketing for Adidas. She’d never started a business, so she took the Recipe to Market class offered by the Food Innovation Center. Masoni gave her advice on everything from nutrition labeling to recipe formulation and packaging. “She’s a total inspiration. She has a passion for what she does and she’s helped me a lot,” Walton said. “Sarah opened up a whole world for me in regards to what I needed to do for food safety and how to access fresh local produce whenever I could.”
That help has paid off. Walton made 600 jars of pickles in 2010; two years later, production exceeded 16,000 jars of Duker’s Dills, including spicy pickles, firey carrots, and hot tomatoes. She recently expanded, creating a new product line named after her grandma Rose. Now Rose’s rosemary lemon beans and asparagus are available along with Duker’s Dills in retail stores throughout Oregon.