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Businesses praise National Food Entrepreneur Program

When her first jar of salsa rolled off the assembly line, Deb Beck was moved to tears.

She presented the jar to her mother — a way of honoring Beck’s grandmother, who passed down the recipe that Nebraskans now know as If You Dare Salsa.

“That’s a feeling you’ll never forget,” said Beck, who remembers making big batches of salsa and giving it away to friends and neighbors in recycled sour cream containers.

Beck never imagined that her grandmother’s salsa would one day be in numerous stores in Nebraska and the Midwest, and she credits this success to the National Food Entrepreneur Program (NFEP).

As a part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Food Processing Center, the NFEP has guided more than 2,000 entrepreneurs through the process of marketing a food product.

This year, the NFEP is celebrating 25 years of helping entrepreneurs from across the country start food-related companies.

“There are a lot of people that have ideas for starting food companies and we’re really a one-stop shop,” said Jill Gifford, program manager for the program. “We’re able to help them make good decisions and help them spend their time and money wisely.”

From family salsa, marinade and sauce recipes to baked goods and health foods, Gifford said she’s seen just about every category of product since she started working with the program in 1994.

In 1996, Besty Ashman’s father-in-law, Mick, came to the NFEP with a $1,000 wad of cash from his three sons. He wanted to get his pasta sauce into the market, per the request of family and friends in his hometown of Firth.

His pasta sauce, now known as Sorrisos, was on store shelves in one year.

“Without that I  don’t know where we’d be at this point,” said Ashman, who has run the business with her husband since 2005. “Without them we probably wouldn’t be entrepreneurs.”

Ashman has shared her story at entrepreneurial programs where she talks about the ups and downs of Sorrisos with budding entrepreneurs, and she said she always adds a plug for the National Food Entrepreneur Program.

Typically, people come to the program with a recipe or food product that friends and family rave about, Gifford said. They are directed to take an all-day seminar called Recipe to Reality, which breaks down the next steps in getting a product to the market.

Entrepreneurs who want to continue down this path may go on to participate in Product to Profit, which involves individual consultations with experts to further outline the specifics of the business, product development, branding and marketing.

Beck first heard about the program from her mother, who saw an advertisement in the local newspaper in 2004. At that point, Beck’s friends had urged her to sell her salsa recipe, so she figured it wouldn’t hurt to try out the Recipe to Reality seminar.

She was shocked to see entrepreneurs from Nevada and New York involved with the national program offered at UNL.

“Entrepreneurs need help in a lot of different areas to get their business off and going,” said Gifford, who explained that while other seminars exist throughout the country, none are specific to the food industry and provide individual consultations.

The NFEP is unique in that it guides entrepreneurs through the step-by-step process of bringing a product to the marketplace. Beck said after she took the initial seminar she was excited to learn more in one-on-one consultations in the Product to Profit class series.

“If it wasn’t for that seminar I would probably still be making (salsa) and giving it away. I had no idea anything like this existed,” Beck said. “I really feel honored and I’m still overwhelmed. It’s still hard for me to believe.”

Gifford noted that the cost and time required for an entrepreneur to make it through the National Food Entrepreneur Program is unique to each product and entrepreneur, but patience is key.

In one of the seminars, Beck remembers learning that many entrepreneurs fail because they try to work through the process too quickly. Beck tried to be patient through each step of the process, but said it wasn’t always easy.

“You’re in tears because (the process) is so overwhelming, plus working full-time,” Beck said. “But just knowing they (NFEP) are there for you and the support they give, you don’t have to wonder, ‘What am I going to do?’ because they let you know that.”

In early 2010 Beck’s If You Dare Salsa appeared on store shelves for the first time. Seeing her grandmother’s salsa recipe next to the other products in Hy-Vee, Whole Foods, Open Harvest and various gift stores was another memorable moment.

Those milestones for small businesses like Beck’s are also milestones for the National Food Entrepreneur Program as it continues its work with entrepreneurs across the country.

“I just love working with these small companies. It’s neat to be able to help them achieve their goals,” Gifford said.

Ashman said she continues to circle back to Gifford and the NFEP when she has questions or concerns about Sorrisos – which now has seven sauce varieties – and always recommends its services to other entrepreneurs.

“If they’ve helped all of them (other entrepreneurs) as much as us, that’s a pretty stellar track record and it’s definitely something that should be used as a model everywhere,” Ashman said. “The benefits are endless. It’s pastabilities, like we like to say.”