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AURI’S Food Team Has Added Expertise to Meet Client Demand in a Rapidly Changing Landscape

The Food Team at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) is evolving to meet the needs of clients through proactive investment in the technology, capabilities and resources that new and emerging companies need to be successful. Its team of scientists and business consultants is committed to transforming Minnesota’s rich agriculture products into sustainable food businesses by providing access to consumer and food science expertise and infrastructure.

It has been a time of rapid change in the food and beverage industry in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, created several specific challenges and opportunities for new and emerging food businesses. In response, AURI added specialists and equipment to help clients every day.

To start, the organization secured state-of-the-art lab equipment to analyze sugar and protein content. AURI also partnered with Southwest Minnesota State University on a food product evaluation sensory lab that students and food businesses can use to obtain feedback in the development of new products. Additionally, AURI is utilizing both state and federal grant dollars to expand its meat sciences capabilities to better serve small to medium sized meat processors in the state.

“It is quite remarkable how we have evolved. Fifteen years ago, AURI was where clients came if they needed assistance with a nutrition label, product development and troubleshooting,” said Jason Robinson, the Food Team’s business development director. “Today on staff we have two food scientists with master’s degrees, two meat scientists with master’s degrees, one food engineer and a project manager bringing more than six decades of industry experience to our clients. We expanded our presence both across Minnesota and the food ecosystem to become a stronger partner to our service providers and clients.”

When working with a new or existing client, AURI’s Food Team starts with a conversation. From those discussions, AURI can better define the problem the client is trying to solve and identify the obstacles to overcome. The team can then use its experience and expertise to craft the best plan going forward.

It is not unusual, however, for a business to approach AURI with specific ideas on the problem it is trying to solve only to find out through further conversation and analysis that different issues exist that are more crucial for success.

Lolly Occhino, AURI’s senior food scientist, cites an example of a client seeking licensure to sell products in a grocery store. After discussions with AURI staff, clients often conclude that there are other avenues to grow their business, such as selling products directly to consumers or partnering with a restaurant, which do not require licensing that better align with their business goals. Refining clients’ “Go to Market” strategy is a vital service the AURI Food Team provides, she said.

The team is also deliberate in how it invests its time and resources. There is a concerted effort to provide services that can help several clients and potential clients across the state, versus expending services on a “one-to-one basis. By working with clients to rightsize their projects, AURI can effectively serve the largest number of entrepreneurs and businesses across Minnesota.

“This approach allows us to be smarter about how we deliver services,” Occhino said. “We are able to provide the answers and knowledge that clients need, not what they think they need.” One way the team maximizes its impact is by researching and publishing a series of guides that address problems and questions that emerging food businesses frequently encounter. In recent years, AURI produced reports on nutrition facts panels, food product shelf-life, digital marketing and E-commerce, packaging, clean labels and pricing and go-to-market strategies. These reports are intended for early-stage food entrepreneurs looking to take the next step in starting or growing a business. The public reports contain information and resources that form baseline knowledge to help a business on its path to development. After perusing the content, entrepreneurs can contact AURI about specific questions within these topic areas as the Food Team encompasses a vast network from which to make referrals and connections.

In addition to tackling common problems, the Food Team also works to solve specific issues. AURI has added significant expertise and equipment to better serve local meat processors. The meat processing industry was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. AURI took action to help businesses respond, innovate and thrive. Its meat specialists advise on technical assistance issues and guide clients through state and federal inspection and licensing.

In 2022, Laura Bachmeier was hired as business development director of meat, while Clay Newton was brought in as a meat innovation specialist. AURI also added new technology and equipment to its laboratory at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall, Minn. AURI installed a bowl chopper, a specialized tool that processors use to make valueadded products like jerky, summer sausage, hot dogs and bratwurst. Bowl choppers like the one at AURI’s lab in Marshall are rare. Processors can visit the lab and use the equipment to develop products. They can also receive training on the bowl chopper to make a better-informed decision before investing in their own equipment.

Furthermore, AURI is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to facilitate multiple grant programs. The grants can be spent on product formulation, new equipment and more.

“We have engaged more than 50 clients with the USDA grants, which is a phenomenal growth in our meat science efforts,” said Newton. “There is a big strain on these businesses right now and being proactive in our support makes AURI a much more valuable partner.”

Expanding the services and expertise available to meat processors is the latest development in AURI’s ongoing partnership with SMSU. In 2019, AURI and SMSU opened a Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Lab on campus, equipped with state-ofthe- art technology and infrastructure to help AURI’s clients better assess the sensory characteristics of food products. It also serves as an educational tool for SMSU’s Culinology students. Lab users conduct product experience and basic discrimination testing for market readiness and receive qualitative consumer and product attribute optimization feedback. The lab has a testing room with nine sensory isolated evaluation booths, a prep room to facilitate on-site preparation and a conference room that provides a focus group setting. Furthermore, data collection equipment allows users to record, input and conduct statistical analysis to adjust products to better reflect consumer preferences.

The team also expanded services and strengthened connections in Minnesota’s cottage foods industry. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, since 2020, the number of licensed homebased, small food registered cottage food businesses in the state has grown from roughly 4,800 to more than 7,000 today. AURI has helped many upstart, scale up and launch new products.

AURI does significant work connecting these entrepreneurs to a network of commercial kitchens and copackers in Minnesota to manufacture their products. It also works with businesses on product formulation issues, nutritional labels, food safety, refining messaging and crafting value propositions.

“We work to help clients define who their audience is and the need they fill in the market with their product,” Robinson said. Once you understand who your consumer is and the problem your product solves, we zero in on getting it to market.”

AURI’s Food Team will continue to anticipate trends and changes in the market and make strategic decisions that best serve the region’s food and beverage businesses. Whether it’s adding new equipment, talent and facilities, creating informational guides or forming new and deeper industry partnerships, AURI is focused on serving its clients and the food and agriculture economy.

“As we hear about the knowledge gaps and needs in the marketplace, those conversations help us build our services and capabilities,” Robinson said. “With each client we work with, we start by listening to their ideas, establishing their needs and goals and understanding the challenges they face. Once we have that foundation, we put our team’s collective knowledge and expertise to use to develop the best plan to move forward.”