by Aisling Swift

The Florida Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee is now up and running, helping cook up new food businesses, guiding chefs through state licensing hurdles and assisting them with getting their products into the retail market.

But its two managers hope the shared kitchen and production facility will become much more for the community.

“Interest has been growing since we opened,” says Culinary Program Manager Ahmed El. “Education is huge. We’re starting to create new uses for the accelerator — hosting field trips, workshops, cooking classes and other events.”

Students from Youth Leadership Collier learn how to turn fresh, local ingredients into delicious meals from the Culinary Accelerator staff and members.

In June, El and Business Development Manager Ruth Fehr hosted a field trip by Youth Leadership Collier, whose 34 students toured the 5,274-square-foot facility, learned culinary skills, made mahi tacos, apple-carrot muffins, jam cookies and ate the fruits of their labor for lunch, along with a locally grown fruit salad and watermelon agua fresca made by El, Fehr and FCA@I facility maintenance specialist Juan Gallegos.

The FCA@I lined up youth and adult classes for July and September with the Seminole Tribe, were the featured tent at Taste Of Collier, where they did hourly cooking demos, and will be featured at the Stone Crab Festival in October.

The culinary accelerator, built in a converted warehouse in the Manufacturing and Technology Center at Immokalee Regional Airport, offers shared-use cooking and food processing space, dry and cold storage, business workspace and a food nutrition testing lab staffed by the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. It’s designed to help chefs work with Immokalee farms and agricultural businesses and is headed by a public-private partnership, the Collier County Office of Business & Economic Development and Economic Incubators Inc., a non-profit dedicated to the success of Southwest Florida’s entrepreneurs.

Woodstock’s micro-market, beneath the Naples Accelerator, will allow the chefs to showcase and sell their products, but that requires a state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (DFACS) wholesale license.

Although 15 have applied to use the accelerator, the state licensing process is complex and takes time. So far, only a few have completed the necessary requirements to work at the FCA@I. Depending on the product, chefs must go through the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation, DFACS or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When Deomattie “Reshma” Tannassee, a chef from Guyana, heard the culinary accelerator was opening, she immediately called and spoke to Fehr, who urged her to come to the March grand opening that morning.

“When I walked in, I thought, ‘This is home.’ ” says Tannassee, who owns Carina’s hot sauces, marinades and jellies. “I love that everyone helps out. I tell Ruth that I want everyone to come and shine.”

The UF IFAS Food Lab inside the Culinary Accelerator @ Immokalee was able to do specific testing on Tannassee’s hot sauce pH and make recommendations for increasing the shelf-life.

Tannassee hit a hurdle in her licensing process and required an acidified foods certification. Her sauces’ pH levels weren’t where they needed to be for shelf life, a problem she’d been working on for two years, but Matt Krug, who heads the accelerator’s food lab, took just seconds to remedy that: Just reduce the cucumbers.

“The partnership with UF-IFAS is proving to be a valuable resource for our chef entrepreneurs,” says Jace Kentner, director of the Collier County Office of Business & Economic Development, which oversees the county’s accelerators.

Tannassee has lined up a large distributor in Tampa for her Caribbean hot sauce, which comes in eight flavors, including mango, pineapple and very berry, and the distributor has 100 potential buyers in five states. “They’re going to start off buying $10,000 worth, with the potential of $50,000 weekly,” says Tannassee, who plans to set up her bottling machine at the accelerator and hire five people.

Four chefs have requested a modified atmosphere packaging machine, which costs $25,000-$50,000, so FCA@I is looking for private funding for that.

“The reaction of the local community in Immokalee has been very supportive,” Fehr says, adding that BalGas utility company donated money for chef scholarships and the Seminole Tribe is working with them on events. “It takes time to build relationships. I truly believe that in six months to a year, we’ll have partnerships that will help us grow, be self-sufficient — and we’ll be thriving.”

For more information on FCA@I or to donate to non-profit EII, go to: www.theculinaryaccelerator.com