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Facility opens doors for local chefs

By Sasha Goldstein | Lake County Leader & Advertiser

Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center Operations Manager Roland Godan shows off a tumbler machine for slowly mixing ingredients in Ronan's 15,000 square foot facility.

RONAN — The next time you need a commercial kitchen, be it for a family reunion or to start your own brand of barbecue sauce, a local, publicly funded facility has all the supplies and technical expertise you need to get started.

Ronan’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center, a project of the Lake County Community Development Corporation, has spent the past 10 years helping food entrepreneurs and local farmers change the way they do business.

Operating out of a 15,000 square foot facility that houses more than $4 million in all sorts of cooking equipment, the MMFEC has its hands in a wide variety of local projects. In fact, the MMFEC Web site boasts it is “Montana’s only food products business incubator with an automated bottling line, USDA inspected meat room, shared-use community kitchen and freezer/refrigerated-warehousing space.”

“Basically what this facility does is that it processes the foods so we can extend our seasons and market opportunities for local and regional food,” Karl Sutton, the food, agriculture and cooperative development project coordinator at MMFEC, said.

Roland Godan, the MMFEC Operations Manager, oversees the different people coming in to use the facility, ranging from high schoolers touring the building to Heidi and Gary Johnson, owners of The Orchard at Flathead Lake in Yellow Bay.

“We couldn’t market our product without a certified commercial kitchen,” Heidi said, referring to the fact that the MMFEC is inspected on the local, state and federal level.

“We’re busy year round now instead of only selling fresh cherries for a week in the summer,” she said.

The kitchen has all the things a cherry producer could need, including a cherry pitter that Godan thinks can pit 80 or 90 pounds of cherries in several minutes. He said that last summer, the Flathead Cherry Growers Co-op used the kitchen and pitted about 15 to 16,000 pounds of cherries. Creating jams, barbecue sauces and chutney out of their cherries, Heidi estimates they use the kitchen for almost 30 days out of the year.

Other small businesses have used the center as an “incubator” — to start and expand their business with the hopes of eventually moving on to a bigger facility.

Bippin Patel is the president of Tipu’s Tiger Chai Tea, an ever-expanding business. First run in Missoula as a restaurant, Patel’s chai tea became extremely popular. He quit the restaurant business to help supply demand, and has used MMFEC for the last three or four years. Today, he ships almost 1,000 gallons of chai tea concentrate a month to 12 or 13 different states, including Washington, D.C. and a café on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn.

“We heard about the facility in Ronan where we could do larger batches,” Patel said.

They use a 100-gallon kettle and a mixing machine for his dry tea mixture.

“We’ve seen steady growth the last couple of years. They’ve been very helpful. Without the center it would have been hard to get going,” Patel said.

While the center helps some businesses get going, it also creates its own food products. Godan’s latest concoction is a pumpkin puree that he produced out of local pumpkins. He prides himself on the ability to take a fresh grown vegetable and turn it into a simple, healthy product.

“Our main thrust is to get local produce to the local markets, but also products that have no preservatives or excessive processing,” Godan said. “At this point, none of our products have any preservatives at all.”

The pumpkin puree, like other MMFEC produced food, includes the name of the farm the pumpkins were grown on. Sutton has been working with the University of Montana to get local food into the cafeterias, and recognizing where the food comes from gives small farms some name recognition. The local food movement has grown quickly, Sutton said, and consumers want to know where and how their victuals are grown.

“It’s difficult for an individual farmer to get into the schools or into other institutions because of how much food they need,” Sutton said. “As far as source verifying where food comes from, it is potentially more valuable on the retail market because of the relationship between the buyer and the person who grew it, and knowing it came from your community. Local food is really hinged on relationships.”
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