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Have a brilliant food business concept? Maker to Market can help make it happen

Gyst Fermentation Bar on Eat Street was a year one Maker to Market participant.

Gyst Fermentation Bar on Eat Street was a year one Maker to Market participant. Thomas Nolan

Maker to Market makes dreams come true.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Now in its second year, the Maker to Market accelerator program gives four independent entrepreneurs in the local food scene a year’s worth of resources, networking opportunities, and more to scale their ideas to market-ready products.

Applications for the second year of the program open on January 15. Hey, that's today! What are you waiting for?

A collaboration between Lakewinds Food Co-Op and The Good Acre -- a nonprofit food hub -- Maker to Market connects makers, farmers, and retailers to consumers, forming relationships that strengthen ties within the Twin Cities food economy. The program puts a premium on produce, putting program participants in touch with The Good Acre’s localized network of small, sustainable farmers. The Good Acre also provides access to commercial kitchen space, while Lakewinds offers marketing and retail insight and nuts-and-bolts information like product pricing, industry vocabulary, and invoicing. They also provide six months of shelf space in their co-ops.

For first-year Maker to Market participants Danielle Wojdyla (Señoras de Salsa) and Mona Khemakhem (Caldo Foods), having their products on shelves was perhaps the biggest and most exciting part of the program. (Gyst Fermentation Bar and Little Red Hen Foods were also year one participants.)

“It put us on the map,” says Khemakhem, who's behind a line of Mediterranean-inspired dips and sauces. “Now we have our products on the shelves.”

Khemakhem also relished the opportunity to demo her products in Lakewinds, connecting directly with customers and hearing their feedback. After this experience, she and her husband -- who runs the business with her -- are more confident about approaching other retailers. They’ve already started talking to co-packers and local stores and distributors about carrying their wares. For Wojdyla, a food scientist who's now a co-owner of Señoras de Salsa, the shelf space was valuable, as was the sales data that accompanied it. With three locations throughout the West Metro area, Wojdyla could see which of the salsas were selling best in each co-op.

Asked how her life is different because of Maker to Market, Wojdyla says: “Completely different. This is my main job. I didn’t imagine that I would be a small business owner, but I am, and I’m really enjoying it. It gave fuel to my own fire.” Moving forward, she hopes to grow into other stores and co-ops throughout the Twin Cities. Expanding production would mean providing more hours -- and consequently more wages -- to the women she works alongside, a goal that is paramount for her. “The business, inward facing, it’s about continuing to empower these women.”

Khemakhem wants to share the flavors of her home with as many people as possible. Originally from Morocco, she and her husband -- who's from Tunisia -- have lived in Minnesota for over 18 years. However, when they had trouble finding the foods and flavors of their home cuisines, they started making their own. Family and friends were the happy recipients of many of these foods around the holidays, which inspired Khemakhem to start her business.

“I think [Maker to Market is] an opportunity every single local entrepreneur should try to apply for,” says Khemakhem. “It’s an opportunity they should not miss out on. Through this program, I got to meet new vendors. It gives you all the tools to start a new business or expand an expanding business.”

“It takes so much more hard work and energy if you don’t have an accelerator” to start your own business, adds Wojdyla. “The Twin Cities is such a cool community. We have enough interest and enough demand that there’s a program like this. It makes me really proud to be a part of the Minnesota food community.”

Looking at the long-term effects of the program, Wojdyla says, “I hope this program helps create enough demand for local vegetables and grains that it can help diversify our agriculture system.” Khemakhem already sees some initial effects in the economy. “We’re hiring people from the community. We’re buying our ingredients from local farmers. It’s just going to create a network, this stronger network where you can try to connect the process from A to Z.”

For these entrepreneurs, Maker to Market was a springboard to sharing their passion and their background with consumers and growers, all while strengthening the local food community.

Kind of a dream come true.

Those interested in applying for Maker to Market should visit makertomarketmn.com. Applications are open from Monday, January 15 through Friday, February 16. Members of the Maker to Market program will be announced in April following taste tests and panel evaluation.