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Capitalizing on the food movement

Rob Clement is a business advisor at the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre, headquarted at the Kitchener city hall. [Steve Kannon]

The rise of the foodie movement has certainly shaped the modern culinary landscape. Now, that extends to the offerings of the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre, whose first speciality start-up program focuses on, you guessed it, food.

The Starter Company Plus – Food Venture provides training for prospective new entrepreneurs and for young businesses within three years of launch. Like the centre’s other venture programs, it provides help with formulating a business plan, product development and mentoring, but this time with an emphasis on the food industry.

Focused on the food industry, it excludes restaurants, though it is open to catering businesses. The target is those looking at businesses that process food or package it, explained small business advisor Rob Clement.

“The target is food that’s going to be packaged for sale,” he said.

The Waterloo Region Small Business Centre is accepting applications for the 12-week program until February 18, with those who are approved to be notified February 25, ahead of the March 3 start date. Those chosen to participate have a chance to apply for a provincial grant of up to $5,000 to start or expand a food processing, manufacturing or catering business.

The new program has a capacity of 20 to 25 participants. While organizers aren’t sure what to expect in the way of applicants given that it’s the first intake, the general program typically accepts about a third of applicants, said Clement.

“Historically, we’ve had to turn people away from the generalized program.”

While this is the first of their starter programs that’s geared towards a specific industry, there are plenty of similarities to other offerings, he added, as the program will cover some of the basic startup issues, as well as early development – the program is available to established businesses up to three years old.

On the provincial grant front, Clement notes about half of program participants receive funding.

The centre has already received queries and applications at this point. Applicants to the general program tend to be above the age of 30, and about two-thirds are women, he said, though it remains to be seen how the numbers look this time around.

What is known is that the centre’s assistance does seem to boost new companies’ fortunes. After two years, about 80 per cent of the businesses are still in operation, he estimated.

Even after the program, the centre can provide ongoing support, including mentorship – the help doesn’t stop at the end of the course time.

“We are absolutely available to them, and we reach out to them periodically,” said Clement of ongoing assistance.

That formula applies to the Starter Company Plus – Food Venture program, where participants will be encouraged to explore prospective food business ideas from many angles, and arrive at a plan to get the  idea off the ground.

The agricultural aspects of the townships make them a likely source of food-based business ideas. Something as simple as taking a booth at a farmers’ market is a good option to try out the marketability of products, for instance, Clement suggested.

“It’s a good way to test proof of concept.

“We definitely have some people who have done things out at the St. Jacobs market,” he said of entrepreneurs who’ve passed through the centre’s programs. “It’s a good way to find out if there’s actually some traction out there.”

More information about the new program, and the centre in general, can be found online.

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