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Ohio's food industry serves up innovation

Eric Allen of Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar in Columbus, Ohio
Eric Allen of Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar in Columbus, Ohio - Bob Perkoski
The phrase "food technology" evokes images of gurgling test tubes and Petri dishes--not exactly appetizing. Fortunately, the depiction is also inaccurate. True food innovation not only enhances what's natural; it also and makes food safer and more convenient. And while new options often stem from research, they can also come from surprising places like the annals of history.

Ohio is teeming with natural resources. Those, along with advocates such as the Toledo-based Center for Innovation in Food Technology (CIFT), make the state a hotbed of innovative food activity. With the help of CIFT technologies and programs, Ohio food businesses are constantly developing and testing products.
"Our mission is to provide technology-based economic development for the food industry," says CIFT president and CEO Dave Beck. To that end, the organization has been supporting the food processing, agribusiness and agricultural sectors with technologies and innovative business approaches since 1995.

Well then, let's eat.
All rib, no bib
Former Browns defensive lineman Al "Bubba" Baker may have made his name on the gridiron, but his true calling is barbeque. "Football was my job, but barbeque is my passion," says Baker. When he met his wife, Sabrina, however, Baker was devastated to learn she didn't share his enthusiasm for fire and smoke.
"I come from a long background of family barbeque in Jacksonville, Florida," explains Baker, who is also owner of the successful barbeque restaurant and catering business, Bubba's Q in Avon, Ohio. "We went down there for a barbeque and my wife told my uncle, Daddy Jr., 'Oh, I don't eat ribs.' She said they were too messy," recalls Baker. "It did not go over well."
So Baker dedicated himself to finding a way for Sabrina to eat ribs without the mess. He eventually developed a now-patented process for removing the bones from his baby back ribs while keeping the rack intact. And with the help of JumpStart, Baker's formed QueenAnn Inc. to market the product.
Baker's QueenAnn de-boned rib is not to be confused with rib-shaped products formed from pork. His ribs are dry rubbed with the Baker family recipe rub, then slow-smoked with apple wood before the bones are removed. The pre-cooked rib steaks are then packaged and can be grilled, baked or even microwaved.
"Twenty-odd years after that miserable experience in Jacksonville, the de-boned rib was born in Bubba's Q," says Baker. "The de-boned baby back rib steak is the most tender, moist rack of ribs – with the bones removed," he adds. "It's an actual rack of ribs, just without the bones. It's that simple."
After months of renting space at Heinen's grocery stores' production plant, cooking and de-boning the ribs in the middle of the night, and then setting up demos and selling the ribs steaks at Heinen's retail stores, Baker finally secured a processing plant and a distributor to do it for him. The rib steaks are still available at Heinen's, and Baker is working on deals with national chains to sell his rib steaks under a private label.
Baker worked with CIFT in assessing costs. "We helped [Baker] figure out how much it would cost to make a profit," says Beck. "It's a great product in his restaurant, but it's really tough to start a meat plant."
Pure water—with a kick
Four years ago, a group of entrepreneurs in Columbus was looking for a healthy way to combine hydration with caffeine. They came up with Avitae Caffeinated Water, a bottled water with all-natural caffeine.

"The healthiest thing you can consume is water," says marketing director Tapan Shah. "There's nothing better for you. And caffeine, when consumed responsibly, is very good for you too."
Avitae is a healthier alternative to sodas and coffee for those looking for that energy boost. "With coffee, people add a lot of cream and sugar and you're making nothing different than a donut," says Shah. "Regular soda with sugar or diet soda with artificial sweeteners ... are not a perfect delivery vehicle. Energy drinks have a lot of caffeine--not in the healthiest doses--and are filled with other junk."
Avitae is simply purified water and natural caffeine from coffee beans. The company makes two varieties: one with 45mg of caffeine, or the equivalent to what's in a can of diet soda; the other has 90mg, which is about what's in a cup of coffee. 
CIFT also worked with Avitae. "We got their process approved," says Beck. "Our food scientists made sure the formula was legal."
Earlier this year Avitae's board of directors assembled a new team of beverage experts and the organization is now based in Cleveland. The water is available in grocery and convenience stores across Ohio and is also available throughout the Midwest and in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

"We have a pretty loyal following in Ohio," notes Shah. "Ohio is pretty much the core of our business."
Fresher, safer and cutting edge
CIFT's High Pressure Processing (HPP) technology has helped fresh food producers extend the shelf life of their products and enabled farther distribution. The technology uses cold water under high pressure to package foods. The method destroys bacteria while maintaining the flavor, nutrients and appearance of the food.

"The process kills the germs without cooking the food," explains Beck. "The result is fresh products that are still stable."
Fewer than 10 companies in the world use HPP, says Beck, and three of them are in Ohio, including Sandridge Food Corporation in Medina. Sandridge specializes in fresh refrigerated soups, salads, sides, sauces, entrees, and dips. The company uses HPP to naturally extend the shelf life of their products, allowing them to ship all over the country.
"We use HPP whenever there is an opportunity to enhance the overall quality of the product, like eliminating the need for chemical preservatives," says Lynnea Jodway, Sandridge marketing coordinator. "With HPP, we are able to create products that meet consumers' ever changing demands. Even the health-savvy consumer, who normally would steer clear of prepared salads, can enjoy new products that incorporate nutritious ingredients that utilize HPP."

Jodway says CIFT was helpful in Sandridge's implementation of the HPP technology. "Sandridge has a long history with CIFT," she says. "We value our partnership with CIFT and their expertise, so it was natural to approach them when we started exploring HPP. We worked on challenge studies to verify the effects of HPP and whether they would be favorable for our products."
From ancient potable to hipster brew
While some Ohio food innovators are using technology to enhance what we eat, one group in Columbus cultivated a new idea--and thriving business--from ancient cultures.
When Oron Benery and his friends decided to try home brewing, they wanted to do something different. So Benery, along with brothers Eric and Woody Drake, looked back--way back-- and chose to brew mead, a potent potable derived from honey that's one of the world's oldest fermented beverages. Considered magical thousands of years ago, Celts, Viking and Anglo Saxons used it in rituals.

"They heard about mead and brewed it in their basement," recalls Sarah Benery, co-owner of what has become Brothers Drake Meadery.
In 2010, the Benerys bought out the Drakes and opened the meadery in Columbus. "We wanted to work for ourselves and put a lot of our ideas about business and sustainability into play," says Benery.
They strive to keep dollars local. "Our mission is to buy, make and sell as local as possible," says Benery. "We want to tighten our circle and get the best quality things as close to the meadery as possible."
The Brothers Drake sells 12 different types of mead, made with local ingredients. Benery has created cocktails made with mead and Ohio-made liquors. The bar also stocks a selection of Ohio beers.
Brothers Drake has no distributor and doesn't want one. "We decided to only sell our products in the Columbus market," explains Benery. "People call us from all around the state, saying, 'we want your product.' And we have to say no." However, the Brothers Drake does have customers, such as the Bottlehouse in Cleveland, that drive down to Columbus to buy the mead and sell it at their bar.
Higher quality at a lower price, naturally
For one Ohio businesswoman, food innovation meant easing accessibility to classic food choices while fostering sustainability. Tristam Griffith and her family have relied on community supported agriculture (CSA) programs for 80 percent of their groceries for the past five years.
"Eating the organic, local, grass fed meats had dramatically cut down my food allergy reactions," says Griffith, adding that the practice also saved her money.

Hence, when Griffith's CSA source went out of business, she decided to start her own. "After reviewing prices, I decided to start my own CSA. I wanted to continue getting the high quality meats I was used to, without going broke."
In October 2010, Griffith formed Eat Local Columbus, a CSA featuring beef, lamb, pork and chicken sourced from Columbus-area farmers. She gets her meat from six farms that she has personally inspected for living conditions and processes. She deals with an additional farm for holiday birds. All of the farms are within 60 miles of Columbus.

The move has paid off. Griffith has 15 to 20 subscribers that come from as far away as Mansfield to participate in her CSA. They buy one-month shares of meat and pick up their shares every three months in packages that are frozen and vacuum-sealed at a state inspected facility.
"Demand has been pretty strong," says Griffith. "I just bought more freezer space so I'll be able to expand in the spring to 25 subscribers."
Griffith estimates that buying from a CSA provides a 22 percent cost savings over buying from a retail supermarket and a 37 percent savings over organic retail prices. But, Griffith warns, you have to be willing to try new cuts and types of meat like lamb shank or whole chicken. She says bone marrow and organ meats are hot items right now.

"There are several advantages to locally-produced meat," explains Griffith. "You know where your meat comes from; you're supporting local farmers; and the health benefits from grass-fed animals are very high."
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