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Food Entrepreneurs Plant Seeds of Financial Success

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – It isn’t easy to take the first steps in any business. But having a startup that focuses on food brings additional challenges. There are permits to obtain, labels to design and nutritional information to ascertain. Then comes the matter of selling the product.

In recent years, many avenues have sprung up for food entrepreneurs in the Mahoning Valley. There are farmers markets almost every day of the week. Retail stores, now more than ever, are looking to cash in on the local food trend and are almost always searching for the next big thing.

And, if the space is right and business is going well enough, food entrepreneurs have the opportunity to sell from their own storefronts.

But while the local food business is growing and there’s certainly money to be made, what drives many entrepreneurs – including the nine that will be profiled in The Business Journal in the coming days – is passion.

Tales of Two Cities’ Cookies

Many of the cookies TaRee Avery sets out for sale at farmers markets follow family recipes. Some feature flavors inspired by her times in Europe and Nashville. And others, such as the vanilla bourbon peach shortbread, are drawn from locally made foods.

“I try to make my own fillings, but this jam was so good that I knew I had to use it,” the owner of Dough House Cookies says.

Avery’s time baking cookies started when she was eight. Everyone in her family cooks something – whether they grill, make casseroles or mix the seasonings – and she was tasked with making the Christmas cookies. Later in life, she traveled to Europe and then Nashville, where she started her first venture, the Nashville Cookie Bar food truck.

“The great thing about Nashville is that everybody’s always doing something. But when you need help, everybody’s always doing something,” she says. “I needed help. All my family and friends were here, so I moved back.”

There are two major differences between the Music City and Youngstown, she adds. First and foremost is that Nashville has a “learn it yourself” environment, where Youngstown is more nurturing of startups, with program such as those in the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Women in Entrepreneurship, in which Avery enrolled.

“The first time I learned that I needed a permit was when I got fined for not having a permit,” she says. “It was baptism by fire. It made me tough and gave me thick skin.”

Second, she says, is the availability of ingredients. Major cities – in this case, Nashville – have stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, where Avery easily found most of the ingredients she needed.

In the Mahoning Valley, however, she has to look a bit longer, something that’s put her in touch with the local food movement.

“Most of them are local ingredients. Of course, you have the stuff you get from the grocery store, but we get stuff like the topping for the vanilla bourbon peach from a local farm. For blueberries, we try to get local vendors,” she says.

Fresh Venture at Whiting’s Dutch Isle

Until three years ago, Duke Whiting had no experience in the ice cream business. Then in 2013, during an estate auction he conducted at the site of the Dutch Isle Ice Cream Shop in New Wilmington, Pa. – the owners had lived in the house next door – he bought the ice cream shop.

After years as an auctioneer, it was an entirely new field for Whiting.

“There’s no recipes. There’s no books. There’s nothing. The machine was half put together and I had to call a guy to teach me how to finish it,” Whiting says.

That winter, his wife, Shana, registered him for Penn State’s “Ice Cream 101” course as a birthday gift. It was the same course Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – yes, Ben & Jerry – took years ago. During the course, the class discussed how to freeze ice cream for long-term storage. It was then that Whiting realized he didn’t have the space he needed to make large quantities of ice cream.

And that, he says, is what makes the ice cream at Dutch Isle, 3664 state Route 208 in New Wilmington, so good.

“You don’t have to have extreme cold storage if you make fresh ice cream, but you’re always going to be making fresh ice cream every day. I was there last night and I got home at 4 o’clock this morning,” he says. “We have the freshest ice cream available anywhere. It came out of the machine this morning and I’m serving it tonight.”

The ingredients he uses to make the ice cream are all locally sourced, he adds. Marburger Farm Dairy in Evans City, Pa., furnishes the milk while the ice cream bases come from Titusville Dairy. Beyond that, cookies for the shop’s ice cream sandwiches come from Sweet Chessie’s Bakery in New Wilmington and the burgers and bacon come from right down Route 208 at Whiting Meats, owned by his father and brother.

“You can’t get any fresher than going down the street to the factory your brother owns to buy it,” Whiting says. “And for our ice cream sandwiches, I’ve got a local bakery making me great, big, fat cookies that I shove some ice cream between. They’re to die for.”

With three summers of experience under his belt, Whiting says he’s come to see the biggest difference between the auction and ice cream industries: the number of smiles.

“At auctions, sometimes you’ve got one item that everyone wants. One guy gets it and he’s happy,” he explains. “But not everybody else is. At an ice cream shop, everybody’s always happy.”

Mama Pearl’s Rises to Occasion

The first time Karen Koncsol set up Mama Pearl’s Baking at a farmers market to sell her breads, she sold out in 90 minutes. As she drove home, she thought to herself, “I might be on to something.”

So she made a go of it, taking on the role of baker as a full-time job. Many of the recipes are from her mother, whose middle name is Pearl, and they’ve proven to be quite the hit.

Each week, she estimates, she sells about a hundred loaves of banana nut bread and about 75 loaves of her zucchini bread. She also offers oatmeal bread, cinnamon roll muffins and, on occasion, dog treats.

After that first market in July 2015, she became a fixture at local markets. During the holiday season – after being around only a few months – she sold 175 loaves of bread her customers bought as gifts. Last year, during the same period, she sold 320.

“I’m still freaking out a bit because this is taking off. I did this for fun,” Koncsol says. “I do it all myself out of my home, full-time. I quit everything to do this.”

The next step is expanding to a larger kitchen. Right now, she has her sights set on getting a system installed in her garage and she recently added more freezer space. Even with that, though, she still aims to keep Mama Pearl’s baking at a manageable level.

“I don’t advertise. I’m scared to advertise,” she says. “You know what they say: Stay small and do what you do.”

More stories of area food entrepreneurs will be posted next week.

Pictured, top: TaRee Avery owned a food truck in Nashville before returning Youngstown last year.

Pictured, middle:  The Whiting family – Duke, Reagan, Remington, Cash and Shana – runs Dutch Isle Ice Cream Shop in New Wilmington, Pa. The shop uses local dairy and meats.

Pictured, bottom: Karen Koncsol sells about 100 loaves of Mama Pearl’s banana nut bread each week.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.