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wendy hinnenkamp chef velarde making a chloe vegan pizza

The Passionate Professionals

Food is a necessity for everyone, but for some it is a passion and a way of life, recognizing it as an opportunity. AURI is currently assisting a wide range of entrepreneurs, including trained chefs and food industry professionals who are using their knowledge and passion to help drive a local food renaissance.

Puros Pies
Puro Pies

Brian Sadowski, owner of Puros Pies, and his wife moved from California to Minneapolis more than 15 years ago. He attended culinary school, then worked at various kitchens in the Twin Cities metro area to get as much hands-on experience as he could. Sadowski landed a job with Panera Bread, training store bakers and ensuring that bread in about a dozen Midwest restaurants met the company’s quality standards. The overnight schedule got to be too much for him and his young family, so he went back to school, earning a food science degree from Kansas State University. He then became a corporate chef for a Twin Cities food company. About three years ago, he moved from the kitchen into product research and development.

Sadowski’s broad experience and goal to eat healthy led to the development of Puros Pies. Unlike grandma’s super-sized pies, Puros Pies are portable, similar to a yogurt cup, but they still feature a crust and filling. The pies come in several flavors including chocolate espresso, strawberry and curry carrot.

“We try to watch what we eat because we want to eat healthy,” Sadowski says. “It was a lot easier to find clean savory products than it was to find sweets. We decided to do our own because we recognized there was a gap in the market.”

Sadowski says Puros Pies are gluten-free, dairy-free and contain some organic ingredients. But that’s not what he hopes captures people’s attention.

“It has to taste good or people won’t eat it,” Sadowski contends.

Sadowski says he’s been working with local resources, including AURI, to help get the products tested and ready for market.

“We are just getting started, but we feel good about where we are at and having resources like AURI helps,” Sadowski says.

A Tasty Mistake

Bee Free Honee
Bee Free Honee

Katie Sanchez wanted to be a pastry chef. She left her Mound, Minnesota, home to attend the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. After graduating, she moved back to Minneapolis with the goal of putting her newly-earned degree to work. She worked as a line cook, then became an assistant pastry chef. She worked under several sous chefs before becoming pastry chef at Whole Foods’ St. Paul bake house.

After her son was born prematurely, his care demands made it impossible to continue as a pastry chef, but it opened an entrepreneurial window.

In her younger years, Sanchez’ family had an apple orchard and her father kept bees. Sanchez had tried to make apple jelly, but failed. Years later when reading about bee colony collapse, she remembered her mistake, which gave rise to Bee Free Honee, a vegan sweetener Sanchez has been marketing since 2011.

Bee Free Honee has the consistency of bee honey, but is made with 80 percent organic apple juice, lemon juice and cane sugar. From that original honey replacement, Sanchez has developed a line of flavored products including Ancho Chile, Slippery Elm, Mint and even a new flower pollen infused Bee Free Honee, which is nutritionally the same as raw bee honey.

“I wanted a lighter sweetener for vegan markets because there were few options,” Sanchez says. “I wanted something that wouldn’t mask the flavors of the other ingredients. I realized I could make a product that would be my gift to my fellow vegan bakers.”

Sanchez says AURI provided technical assistance on ingredient sourcing, co-packing and nutrition labeling. Bee Free Honee was available in three Twin Cities outlets when it first hit the market five years ago. Now it’s in more than 2,000 stores nationwide.

On a Mission

Chloe Vegan Pizzas
Chloe Vegan Pizzas

Augie and Wendy Hinnenkamp’s motivation for developing a new food product was a bit more personal. Their daughter Chloe suffers from severe eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition of the esophagus that can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction to everyday foods. Augie Hinnenkamp, who has more than 20 years of experience working in food and consumer packaging, partnered with locally acclaimed chef, Robert Velarde to develop Chloe Vegan Pizzas

“We started with pizza because everyone likes pizza,” Augie Hinnenkamp says.

Hinnenkamp says perfecting a vegan cheese that melts and stretches like dairy cheese has been a challenge. He says the vegan crust and sauce were relatively simple to make, but they tested more than 500 variations of vegan cheese before developing a winner. AURI technical staff have been involved with the cheese development, which could lead to new market opportunities beyond pizza topping.

“We wanted to have the best tasting vegan pizza and cheese in the market, period,” Hinnenkamp says. “I think we nailed it.”

Chloe Vegan Pizzas come in six flavors, including margarita, Mediterranean, campfire vegetable and Alfredo. Those are just the beginning as new products, including pasta, are in the works.

Changing Times

These and other food entrepreneurs are finding a warmer market reception than ever before.

“We are seeing an explosion of food entrepreneurs,” says Lolly Occhino, food and nutrition scientist for AURI. “We hear of the Twin Cities becoming the Silicon Valley of food. It is a hub for entrepreneurs because there is a lot of support for them which helps fuel the movement.”

Occhino says part of the reason food entrepreneurs are finding success in the marketplace is a growing desire by consumers to eat more healthy, local foods. Many people also want clean labels that contain simple, natural ingredients.

“Clean labels go hand in hand with consumers’ desire to eat more local foods,” Occhino adds. “It’s appealing to purchase something that been grown locally.”

Occhino says getting an audience with food buyers from retail outlets is much different for small, entrepreneurial food companies than it was a decade ago. She says many stores are looking to stock their shelves with local products because that’s what consumers want. That market-pull benefits small companies trying to make their mark.

“I lived in California and I’ve traveled to the East Coast, so I used to think that’s where trends started,” Sadowski says, “but from what I’ve seen, people here are very in tune with their food. This area has been very supportive of local foods.

Smaller food companies and entrepreneurs are taking market share and shelf space from larger food processors in part because they can react more quickly to consumer’s changing tastes.

“I feel we are on trend,” Hinnenkamp says. “We’re at a crossroads because Consumers are educated and they want to understand the ingredients they’re seeing on the label. They want farm to table.”

“It used to be a few companies dominated the food industry,” Sanchez says. “Now you can go in to a grocery store and get almost anything that’s been made in a small batch. Smaller companies saw an opportunity and jumped in because consumers want transparency in food.”

Transparency may drive some demand, but consumers will ultimately decide which products survive.

“It may be easier to get in front of someone than it was a decade ago, but you still have to move units,” Sadowski says.