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January 09, 2012

Grazing at the Vermont Food Venture Center's Grand Opening

SyrupOn this gray day, there was one hopping place where you could lose yourself in a kaleidoscope of locally made morsels, from peach salsa, smoked trout and black currant simple syrup to gin, sweet potato dip, jalapeño chips and Bayley Hazen Blue cheese — and it wasn't City Market.

Friday marked the official ribbon cutting for the new Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, an ambitious 15,000-square-foot kitchen incubator and food processing center about a mile outside of Hardwick's downtown. Though the center has actually been operating since the summer, this was the day in which supporters such as Sen. Patrick Leahy and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross gathered to cut the proverbial ribbon. 

Key among the private and public grants that covered the $3 million cost was $450,000 in federal funds secured by Leahy, who was clearly chuffed by the hundreds who turned out for the opening. "Wow. This is something. I wanted to be here to thank you — all of you — for making me proud to be a Vermonter," he said.

The center, operated by the Center for the Agricultural Economy, operated from Fairfax until a space crunch set backers on a search for a new locale.

DipThe centerpiece here is the shared kitchens, rentable by the hour, where food producers can mix, bake and boil their wares. They can also package and store goods at the center, or take advantage of a range of recipe and business consulting. Among those using the center already — or about to start — are Sumptuous Syrups, Për's Smoked, Yee Yee's Vermont Specialty Foods and Cellars at Jasper Hill, a flagship tenant who will mentor other cheesemakers here. 

Sharing her tangy sweet-potato dips was Lisa Johnson of YummyYammy, who comes here once a week to roast and whip New England sweet potatoes into a range of dips.  "I want to change the way we think about sweet potatoes!" she declared. "They're a superfood, and fabulous for you."

But logistics can get in the way of passion. Johnson was operating her 2-year-old business out of her Norwich kitchen when she realized she needed more room to move. "I had nine Crock Pots going on my kitchen stove for four hours. I reached a point where I had to have a place like this to come, or I needed to shut down," she said. 

Though the drive from Norwich to Hardwick is 90 minutes, it enables Johnson to ramp up production so she can keep up with orders from throughout Vermont, and now in Michigan and Minnesota. She produces 28 cases of dip during each weekly production session. "This place really made it possible," Johnson said. She's now poised to roll out a sweet-potato pancake mix, and has visions of sauces, burgers and other morsels.

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