South Side Innovation Center cooking up success stories with aspiring food startups
By: Nate Mink | Syracuse.com
Syracuse, N.Y. — It’s approaching high noon on a sticky, sun-splashed August day, and droplets of sweat are crawling down Cedric Bolton’s cheeks. In any moment he will face more heat, opening his giant smoker, checking on his prized chicken wings, hoping he has not overcooked them.
They are lathered in a perfect black char as smoke billows into the air of Comfort Tyler Park across the street from Manley Field House, where Cedric is grilling up barbeque for a group from Syracuse University.
This is far from a typical backyard cookout. This is Cedric’s side business, and his future as a caterer hinges on full stomachs and satisfied customers. Each gig he gets is a stage to perform on, and in the infant stages of a journey he hopes lands him in a food truck by next summer, every review matters.
He is a foodpreneur, an entrepreneur interested in taking an idea out into the food industry, one of many success stories born out of the South Side Innovation Center in Syracuse. The center, nearly a decade old, is a business incubator, an initiative of Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, a place that houses a test kitchen and where about 350 people receive consulting and other resources for launching their food-related business each year.
There is Cedric and his barbeque. There is Della Brown, who previously launched a taco business before rebranding herself once everyone went crazy over the banana pudding she served for dessert. There is Bernadette Rella, who took a family recipe for sauce and is now in 22 stores across Syracuse, Utica and New York City.
Together, they represent some of the South Side Innovation Center’s best examples of hope for aspiring food startups, proof that the large metal building at 2610 S. Salina St. is delivering on a promise to promote economic development in the community.
“I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, ‘Oh, this sauce is the best,’ “ said El-Java Abdul-Qadir, director of the South Side Innovation Center. “It takes a certain person to really be committed to taking their sauce from their kitchen table to commercial.”
Rella’s Originals (Formerly Ma Ma Rella’s)
Bernadette Rella, of Ma Ma Rella’s Fine Foods in Whitesboro, hands out samples of her pasta sauce at the Central New York Regional Market. (Kate Collins | email@example.com)
Earlier this month, Bernadette left her Oneida County home and arrived in New York City at 5:30 a.m. to push her product at a double demo, first in Union Square, then in Chelsea. She didn’t return home until 1 a.m. and was at a farmers market by 9:30 later that morning.
This is the effort she believes is needed to turn four products into five, six and eventually 15, the work ethic required if her dream of turning Rella’s Original’s into a global brand is ever to come to fruition.
“I just have it in my head I want my company to be as big as Coca-Cola,” Bernadette says. “I know that sounds kind of crazy.”
But big dreams are a prerequisite for foodpreneurs — no matter how unrealistic they sound.
So is patience.
She walked into the South Side Innovation Center three years ago and saw her first product, a dark marinara sauce, hit shelves 16 months ago. Within a month Bernadette and her mother started working on an Alfredo sauce in their own kitchen. It took nearly a year to bring the pH level down and perfect the recipe.
“It was gross,” Bernadette, 39, said. “You can’t submit a product that’s not going to taste good.
“If anybody knew what we went through to get each product out to make sure it’s perfect and good. You don’t know until you start researching the industry. When you go into any store, nobody knows what it entails for that product to be there.”
She enrolled in various classes the SSIC provides and met with a consultant to formulate a business plan that took almost a year to finish.
When it was time to walk into the bank, her pitch to financers was as homemade as her sauce.
She talked about growing up. Her Dad owned a push cart and drove a hot dog truck around Rome, N.Y., while Mom made chili from scratch. She received a $45,000 line of credit.
She talked about how she started working toward her business eight years ago but felt like she was “spinning my wheels” until she walked into the South Side Innovation Center and received invaluable guidance.
She mentioned her three children, Kayla, Alyssa and Michael, and how the projected numbers will help support them financially.
“To me, I’m just an average person,” Bernadette says.
“To me it’s all about the product and the person behind the product pushing it. I push everything.”
Before she left her meeting with the financial advisor, she slid a jar of her marinara sauce across the table.
“Here, try it,” she told him.
Della Brown started a new business, Puddinglicious, selling several flavors of banana pudding. She uses her mother’s banana pudding recipe with her added touches. She is holding up a sample of her strawberry banana pudding. (Ellen M. Blalock | firstname.lastname@example.org)Ellen M. Blalock | email@example.com
“One taste and you’re hooked.”
That’s the slogan Della Brown picked as part of her rebranding effort at Puddinglicious almost four years ago.
“A lot of people like to brag about their product,” she says, “but this banana pudding is different from any other banana pudding that I ever tasted.”
She’s biased, of course. The recipe was passed down from her mother and refined with her own twist. Good luck trying to pry any details about it from Della. Four people on Earth know how to make it, and two of them, a business consultant and nutritionist for the South Side Innovation Center, signed confidentiality papers promising not to divulge any secrets.
Flour, eggs, milk, sugar, a dash of cinnamon. That’s all she’s willing to reveal.
“I don’t give too much out,” Della says. “Some people, they bake. Some people cook. I’ll leave it at that, but I added a couple secrets myself and you would never think of it. You’d be like, ‘What the heck?’ “
The pudding is available in a variety of flavors and is topped with fruit, whipped cream and sprinkled with cookie crumbs. It was served as a dessert at Della’s first business venture, Tacolicious, and customers were so satisfied it quickly became apparent this would be a viable fallback plan after rent became too expensive for the taco shop to survive on Warren Street in downtown Syracuse.
Della used the South Side Innovation Center to take classes, obtain an MWBE (Minority and Women Owned Enterprise) for contracting, create her business plan and help with miscellaneous yet vital tasks, such as labeling, calculating the nutritional value of the pudding and creating a menu for her new space at 207 W. Manlius St. in East Syracuse, where the pudding is manufactured. She hopes to open the doors in a couple weeks with light fare such as nachos and fried chicken and, of course, plenty of pudding.
Before, Della trekked from store to store with her health department permit, business cards and cooler of pudding, tempting owners to allow her to dish out samples to their patrons. Word got around, and Puddinglicious is now available in three Tops locations, Green Hills Farms and various gas stations and convenience stores.
“(SSIC) wants you to be serious because they’re serious,” Della says. “A lot of people come in with dreams.”
Cedric Bolton, of Syracuse, owner of BoDean’s Smoked Chicken and Ribs, caters a job at Comfort Tyler Park in Syracuse. (Gary Walts | firstname.lastname@example.org)
Cedric’s dream is to be driving a food truck within a year and see his own BoDean’s barbeque sauce on the shelf in supermarkets, not unlike local giant Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
It took some nudging from his wife, whom he calls his “she-ro,” but here is Cedric, grill tongs in hand, tossing chicken wings under a tent with aluminum containers of pulled pork, ribs and sides behind him. He started doing backyard cookouts six years ago but got serious about his business plans about a year ago when he heard about the South Side Innovation Center working at SU.
“When I first thought about this it was so scary,” Cedric says, “and to see me actually here with a tent and these grills, it’s like wow, I’m really doing something I never thought I could do.
“For me that’s really encouraging because when I meet young people who are not sure what they want to do in life I can always talk about the entrepreneur side, things you really like doing and how you can maximize that in your own community.”
His biggest obstacle in waiting until he was in his mid-40s to take a run at starting his business was himself.
“Once you get over yourself,” he says, “everything else becomes easier because you have to get yourself motivated to do this thing.”
Cedric completed 10 weeks of classes last fall focusing on areas such as marketing, accounting and legal. He won a business plan writing competition at the SSIC, catered for a graduation celebration for Syracuse police chief Frank Fowler’s daughter and participated in Taste of Syracuse and Juneteenth.
His short-term goal is to finish his business plan and meet with a bank to obtain funding for the food truck. By the time he’s 50, he wants multiple trucks around town and other cities and to be known as a franchise.
“You have to show your passion and what you believe you’re doing is dead on to being something good for this community,” Cedric says.
A man takes the first bite into a wing, licks his lips and gives Cedric a thumbs up. Soon, scores of kids will called in from further down the park, hungry mouths to feed after a tiring kickball game in the August heat.
Cedric wipes his face off with a towel slung over his shoulder.
Why barbeque in this town?
He doesn’t bat an eye.
“You gotta give Dino their credit for who they are, and you have to give them their props,” he says. “But if everyone sat back and said ‘Well, they’re the only dog in town …’
“You gotta be challenging. I would love for them to one day say, ‘Come over and go to his barbeque.’ They won’t have to let me know they’re there.”
Originally published at www.syracuse.com.