Sixth Annual Food Entrepreneur Conference scheduled for March 21-22 in Auburn
By Karen Hunley
Five years ago, the Auburn University Food Systems Institute combined its knowledge of food safety and food business to organize the first Food Entrepreneur Conference for aspiring entrepreneurs and small farmers. Food business owners, faculty members from Auburn’s College of Business, and state organizations began supporting the event and participating in speaker panels. Participation in the event has grown each year, and now food business experts and entrepreneurs from all over the state travel to Auburn each spring to give advice and share their own stories.
This year one of those entrepreneurs will be Robert Armstrong, founder of G Momma’s “Southern-style bite-size cookies” based in Selma, who will be a keynote speaker at the event. This will be Armstrong’s first year participating in the conference, which is scheduled for March 21 and 22 at the CASIC building in the Auburn Research Park.
“I am excited to share the journey I’ve been on with G Mommas Cookies and hopefully I’ll share some valuable knowledge I’ve gained as well,” says Armstrong.
Armstrong says G Momma’s came about for two important reasons – his love for his “Gammy” (pronounced “Gah-mee”) as well as his desire to help boost the economy in his hometown. The melt-in-your mouth cookie recipe doesn’t hurt, either.
“Gammy would bake these little cookies for all our family ‘get-togethers’, and we would crawl all over each other to get a few,” Armstrong says on his G Momma website. “We would just keep coming back again, and again, and again. You really couldn’t eat just one!”
He also says he wants to help keep Selma alive, including its rich history connected to the Civil Rights Movements. “(Selma) has suffered from a declining economy for the last 40 years or so, and a big reason for that is young people generally don’t move back after college because the lack of opportunity,” Armstrong says. “It has always been a dream of mine to come back and help the area in some way.”
Armstrong will be joined by speakers like John Syzmanski, who works in recipe and new program development for The Kroger Company and can give the “big-box store” perspective of food entrepreneurship. Jimmy Wright of Wright’s Market will also be on hand to provide the viewpoint of a smaller, local grocer.
Audience interest in the event has grown each year, too. Last year’s Food Entrepreneur Conference was a turning point – more than 74 aspiring and current food entrepreneurs attended, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house.
Hosted by the Auburn University Food Systems Institute (AUFSI) in cooperation with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) the event is focused on offering “real life” advice for growing a food business as well as providing an opportunity for burgeoning entrepreneurs to make invaluable business connections. Representatives from the Alabama Department of Public Health along with ACES will cover topics such as food safety, regulations, and labeling, while a professor from the AU College of Business will cover business marketing.
Past keynote speakers include Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes; Stacy Brown of Chicken Salad Chick, an Auburn-based restaurant that now has locations throughout the Southeast; and Chuck Caraway of Southeastern Food Group, one of Alabama’s largest food processing companies. Caraway has agreed to come back this year as a panelist; in fact, most past presenters have seemed to enjoy inspiring others to take the next steps toward food entrepreneurship and are eager to return.
Armstrong says it will be important to share with the audience not only what worked well for him when starting his own business, but also what he would do differently if he had the chance.
“I hope to impart that there really is no magic formula or secret to becoming successful in the food industry,” he says. “It all starts with the product and from there, it’s just a lot of hard work.”
In addition to the speaker panels and the Q&A sessions that follow, participants can also choose to attend up to two specialized breakout sessions on topics such as Cottage Food Law certification, which allows entrepreneurs to operate some types of food businesses from their homes; catering/food service/bakery; USDA meat products; food trucks; maximizing opportunities for minority-owned businesses; and the innovative aquaponics industry.
Registration for the two-day event is $150 before March 14 and $200 after that date. For a full conference agenda and to register, visit https://aufsi.auburn.edu/2018-food-entrepreneur-conference/ or call Regina Crapps at 334.844.7456. Also check the AUFSI Food Entrepreneur Conference Facebook page for updates to the conference agenda and other pertinent conference information.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities), is an equal opportunity employer and educator. Everyone is welcome!