The LSU AgCenter Food Incubator will more than triple its bottling capacity as an initial step toward an expansion plan that will substantially increase the size of the facility in the near future.

The expanded bottling capacity is critical for fledgling businesses like Cajun Legacy, whose Lafayette owner Jim Davis has spent the past 15 years perfecting a bloody mary mix. The final recipe he came up with three years ago took first place in the nonalcoholic beverage category at this year’s Scovie Awards, which recognize the best hot and spicy foods.

Davis said he’s had difficulty figuring out how to bottle his award-winning mix and get it on store shelves. He’s been working with officials at the food incubator to overcome those issues and credits the staff at the incubator for helping him work out processes. His hope is the new bottling system will get his mixes on store shelves by the holidays.

“It’s been quite a challenging year, to get a first place award and to not be able to get product on the shelf,” he said. “You can’t go wrong being connected to LSU.”

The new bottling line, which is being built with a $2.5 million grant from the Louisiana Division of Administration’s Office of Community Development, is the initial step in a plan that will take the incubator from a 3,500-square-foot facility spread across the LSU campus into the 28,170-square-foot LSU AgCenter Food Innovation Center. That would enable the center to house 30 more tenants on top of the 35 it now has.

“No state ought to be more interested in food innovation than Louisiana,” said Jay Dardenne, commissioner of administration. “This is an opportunity to advance the entrepreneurial spirit and the expertise in food in a way that has long-term benefits for the university and the economic vitality of this area.”

LSU AgCenter officials are waiting on a $2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and matching state funds before going ahead with the future phases of the expansion, which would be built next to the bottling line, on the outskirts of campus. The location near the South Gates will be more accessible to tenants and 18-wheelers, who currently have to deal with campus vehicle restrictions.

“From the time we receive funding, we’re 12 to 15 months from having a processing facility in place,” said Wade Baumgartner, associate vice president of strategic initiatives for the LSU AgCenter.

LSU also is seeking private funds to help with the facility, offering incentives such as sponsorships and possibly putting a donor’s name on the kitchen, said Hampton Grunewald, the AgCenter’s associate vice president for governmental relations. Grunewald said he hopes to see movement on the expansion happen sometime in 2020. 

The food incubator started in 2013 in a poultry lab on the LSU campus (some of the special lights that were used in the lab are still in place). It opened on a shoestring budget; Gaye Sandoz, the head of the incubator, outfitted it with old equipment she salvaged across campus.

“There are only three small spaces we can work in, so we’re not cross-contaminating,” she said.

Despite the limited space, the incubator has been successful. In 2018, just over 100 tons of food was produced out of the space. The incubator is on track to produce about 130 tons of food in 2019.

Not only does the incubator provide a space for entrepreneurs to turn their favorite recipe into a viable business, but it lets LSU students get hands-on experience in food production.

Currently, four students work for the incubator, while others work for the various tenants. Grunewald said the students deal with issues such as exploding bottles of sauce to products changing color while on the store shelves. 

This experience has allowed recent LSU graduates to get jobs working for large food companies such as Nestle, Burger King and Zatarain’s.

The lab also does testing for a number of local food companies, including Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar, Community Coffee, Tabasco and Smoothie King. This can cover everything from determining the shelf life of items to calculating the nutritional value of a dish.

“Before that, there was no local place for these businesses to go,” Sandoz said. "We want this to become a one-stop shop for food companies."

Right now, the bottling line can fill and label 700 bottles a day. The new equipment, which cost $1.2 million, will be able to fill between 2,100 and 2,500 bottles a day, depending on the size. 

Richard Hanley co-owns Hanley’s Foods with his wife, Kate. The business, which makes premium, natural salad dressings, is one of the success stories from the food incubator. When it came into the facility in 2014, Hanley’s dressings were in 20 local grocery stores.

Now the dressings are sold in 1,000 stores, including Whole Foods locations across the region.

“We’re very fortunate and blessed to have this facility,” Richard Hanley said. “The fact that they are upgrading constantly allows us to thrive and grow.”

The staff at the incubator has helped Hanley research products, such as “Bacom bits” — a crunchy salad topper made from mushrooms. The product tastes similar to bacon but is vegan and all-natural.

"We wouldn't be here if not for this place," he said.

While several other universities have food incubators on campus, such as Rutgers and Oklahoma, Sandoz said what makes the LSU facility unique is the willingness to work with small businesses such as Cajun Legacy and Hanley's. 

Bill Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture, said the goal of the expansion is to make the AgCenter a national center for food innovation that is vendor-driven and provides important training for students.

“We think there’s potential there for income,” he said. “This is really a good opportunity to put Louisiana on the map for something we do.”

Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.