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New work space fills gap for small food producers

A new commercial kitchen in Sackets Harbor is starting to help small food producers grow their businesses. The shared-use facility is the first of its kind in Jefferson County.

In a dining room full of chattering officials from local government, agriculture and economic development, people dug into the first products of the new kitchen: Christine Hoffman's pepper jelly and fruit jam.

In 2011, Hoffman collected her recipes under a cheeky name – The Spicy Wench – and a business was born. “I do seasonings and spices and pepper jellies and wine jellies and fruit jams and all sorts of stuff like that,” Hoffman said. “And I'll soon be doing mustards and ketchup and barbecue sauce and beer jelly.”

In two years, The Spicy Wench has grown to include five seasonal workers and distribution in a dozen retail outlets. But with that growth, Hoffman hit a wall: she outgrew the work and storage space she was renting from a caterer.

The new kitchen in the Madison Barracks housing development came just in time to keep her momentum going. She's the facility's first client. There's plenty of storage, and the larger-scale equipment means she can have more pots bubbling away at one time. And that means more profit.

Kevin Jordan shushes the crowd of several dozen at the open house. He heads up Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Through a USDA grant aimed at boosting the local food economy, the extension was able to provide technical support to Lawler Commercial Properties, the Madison Barracks developer. “Our goal is to help the local food industry by helping growers and processors overcome barriers to growing those businesses,” Jordan said. “We want to help private business do what they do best: generate community wealth and jobs.”

U.S. Representative Bill Owens, of Plattsburgh, joined in the celebration. He said the kitchen fills a gap in the local food economy. “We're starting to see kind of a development of the support industries for people who are out there with small farms. And I think that that's really a critical next step,” he said.

Agricultural officials said until now, the nearest similar production facility was in Madison County.