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Food entrepreneurs get boost from experts

In mid-2012, Michael Antonopoulos was near the end of his financial rope, relying on food stamps and pondering his future.

An entrepreneur at heart, Antonopoulos not only lived on hummus, he began developing hummus-related recipes for gluten-free, grainless cookies. Borrowing $2,500 from a friend, he bought space at a Talent commercial kitchen and rolled up his sleeves.

Soon the owner of TonTon's Artisan Affections was selling three flavors of fresh hummus and four flavors of grainless, vegan, gluten-free cookies at local farmers markets.

In the past year and a half, Antonopoulos has sold more than $100,000 of his product, hired two part-time employees and contracted with two more people for demonstration sales and bookkeeping.

Antonopoulos is among three graduates of the Sustainable Valley Technology Group's Fall Accelerator program, along with Jonny Steiger and Tyson Fehrman of By George Farm, and Courtlandt Jennings of Pickled Planet.

Antonopoulos said he found Sustainable Valley, and its executive director Heather Stafford, as he researched ways to enhance his business model.

"I had researched the Southern Oregon Angel Network, and through that research I was able to establish a relationship with Heather, so when the program started in October, I was prepared," said Antonopoulos, who is hoping to ride what chickpea farmers have dubbed the "American hummus craze."

In less than two decades, the hummus industry has mushroomed from a $5 million industry to a nearly $400 million enterprise.

"The first year of business, I was completely by myself," Antonopoulos said. "I had no one to bounce ideas off. The greatest benefit I received from the accelerator was having a team of mentors who were knowledgeable professionals at my back. If I had a question for an attorney or accountant, there was someone there that I could ask that type of question."

Private backers working with Sustainable Valley invested $10,000 in TonTon's, allowing Antonopoulos to rebrand with a new logo, restyle his packaging and develop his Internet presence to reach beyond the Rogue Valley.

The next steps, he said, include gift boxes shared with other locally produced goods, and finding a space with his own commercial kitchen — possibly in Ashland.

Stafford said the three Fall Accelerator graduates are in various stages of development.

Pickled Planet's methodical, decade-long growth has positioned the fermented-foods maker as a regional player. The next step is taking the firm to national stature.

"The building they're in has the capacity for them to produce $2 million in annual revenue," Stafford said. "But they are only generating $250,000 in revenue."

The breakthrough could come soon.

Both Whole Foods and Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer, are doing a product review.

"We're talking over 200 stores if the product review is successful," Stafford said. "So they are looking for a bigger round of investment so they can invest in inventory, allowing them to ramp up fast."

She said Pickled Planet plans to exhibit at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim in March and is working with the Commerce Department's Portland office on possible international deals.

The third company to complete the accelerator training, By George Farm on Yale Creek Road in the Applegate Valley, is operated by Jonny Steiger and Tyson Fehrman.

The two formerly were part of artisan food activity in Wisconsin, where they learned to make cheese wheels. They hope to develop cheese wheels using grass-fed cows on 87 acres in the Applegate Valley.

Stafford said they need to get certification with the Food & Drug Administration and Agriculture Department before creating a mobile creamery. The goal is to produce cheese wheels for sale beyond Southern Oregon. They have been offered $15,000 from private investors.

"What has investors interested," Stafford said, "is that cheese gets better with age."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Erik Harms, left, and Michael Antonopoulos fill and label containers of hummus for TonTon's Artisan Affections on Thursday at Rent-A-Kitchen in Talent. An accelerator program has helped TonTon's Artisan Affections move forward.