Mary MacLean can’t imagine starting Happy Dance Hummus without help from staff at the Food Development Centre.
“Basically everything I didn’t know I would turn to them to find out,” MacLean told the Co-operator.
When she began her business, about five years ago, she took her homemade hummus to FDC in Portage for analysis. When sales picked up, MacLean knew she’d have to ramp up production. FDC connected her with a small business development specialist.
“This woman, I attribute so much praise to,” MacLean said. “She was amazing.”
The specialist sat down with her several times, going over how to source ingredients, how to set retail prices as she prepared to get Happy Dance Hummus into stores, and how to find government grants for freezers, fridges, a commercial mixer and packaging equipment.
Before getting into the food business, MacLean was a high school music teacher with no background in the industry. Her interaction with FDC employees was vital, which is why she worries for others like her who are just getting started.
On April 8, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the province intended to strip the Food Development Centre of its Special Operating Agency status and its $2.02-million operating grant. FDC will then fall under Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development’s purview.
The province will also shrink the FDC’s mandate. “Instead of providing research and development services for dozens of Manitoba food companies… the Food Development Centre (FDC) will now limit its focus on protein industries development and large-growth-oriented clients with existing production facilities,” the Free Press reported.
“FDC will continue to provide excellent service in the same location with a more focused approach on product innovation and development in plant and animal protein,” said Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen in a statement emailed to the Co-operator.
“The new focus of FDC supports Manitoba’s vision to be North America’s supplier of choice for sustainable plant and animal protein through the Manitoba Protein Advantage strategy,” he added.
The move will come with some cost savings in administration. The Free Press also reported that six staff members have been laid off, “including some senior technical people.”
MARD has budgeted about $1.8 million for FDC in the 2021-22 fiscal year, Pedersen’s spokesperson said.
The spokesperson listed several resources available to small food startups, including Red River College’s Prairie Research Kitchen, community commercial kitchens, private companies that provide co-packing and production facilities, services from the University of Manitoba, and the Canadian International Grains Institute.
“We are combining the more focused FDC within a branch that concentrates on value-added food processing,” the spokesperson said. “This branch will triage client needs and direct them to services that are in place and appropriate for supporting micro- and small-scale food enterprises.”
Another small food processor says if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that now is not the time to cut back on services for small businesses.
“We know why we should support the small startups, the small companies, the Indigenous people who own businesses. Now we know better than a couple of years before,” said Anandakumar Palanichamy, who owns Dr Beetroot, based in St. Leon.
“Small startups, small businesses, should be given priority at any cost,” he added.
Palanichamy has worked with the FDC to develop and demo one product and for nutrition labelling compliance reviews for Dr Beetroot.
When he started Dr Beetroot in 2013, Palanichamy said he went to FDC and met with a product development specialist who told him he’d have about a nine-month wait because of a backlog at the centre.
Palanichamy, who studied food-processing engineering, decided to do his own product development — working in a community kitchen in his neighbourhood to develop his beet ketchup, sauce, dip and other products. He also became certified in food safety and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point).
He’d later return to FDC with a federal grant to develop a beetroot powder. The centre demonstrated how to make the product, but Palanichamy found it was too expensive to manufacture the powder at FDC. He decided they’d do it themselves.
He continued to work with FDC on nutrition labelling, compliance review and labelling review but said he’s since been told he’ll have to go to a private company. Private companies are too expensive, as they tend to sell these services as a package with other services he doesn’t need, Palanichamy said.
It’s possible that location was already a deterrent for small food producers, said Kristie Beynon, executive director of Direct Farm Manitoba, which represents small-scale farmers, food producers and farmers’ market vendors.
Beynon said she knows of food producers who wanted to go there but found it too far away.
Still, she said, she knew of small companies who’d used that space. “It would be a shame if smaller processors and smaller producers, farmers’ market vendors, these types of folks, weren’t able to make use of the development centre because of cutbacks.”
It’s difficult for food entrepreneurs to find mentorship and guidance, said MacLean. FDC was where she found that, so she’s saddened that other small-business owners may not get the same help.
“I’m really grieved on behalf of others like me who don’t have a foodie background, are starting a business, don’t have a clue where to go and how to get there,” she said.