Craig Wolf, Poughkeepsie Journal
An idea for a food-processing center that formerly existed in Poughkeepsie has come back to life.
But, not in Poughkeepsie.
It’s in Decatur, Illinois, and bears a name that reflects the original idea: National Foodworks Services, and it is the brainchild of a couple of former Poughkeepsie businessmen.
Hudson Valley Foodworks was a venture begun in 1997 by the nonprofit Poughkeepsie Partnership, which created a facility where entrepreneurs could share commercial equipment to develop and make their food products after they’d outgrown their home kitchens.
One of the tenants in that facility, which closed five years ago, was Jim Milano, who had used it for a business he was involved in, Nilda’s Desserts.
Another former Poughkeepsie businessman, Tony Caccomo, served for a while on the Partnership board. He had a background in real estate and finance. He later created a fundraiser food business called Antonio’s Gourmet Shop.
Caccomo, who had previously lived many years in Illinois, moved back there in 2000 to be with his children. But, the Foodworks idea kept bubbling in his head, and he believed that the core concepts of the old Foodworks could be made bigger and better if done as a business. In Decatur, he found fertile ground for his idea, with large food companies willing to work with entrepreneurs and economic advantages including cheaper property and utilities.
He persuaded Milano to get involved and to move to Decatur in May and work on creating a large-scale incubator and commercial kitchen.
They plan a multi-faceted business model, including helping entrepreneurs to make and develop their foodstuffs. But, they also plan to provide “co-packing” services, also known as contract packaging, to clients who need to hire a facility and crew to manufacture their food products. They expect to make some specialty products of their own, as well. A nonprofit has been formed on the side, Heart of America Foodworks, with hopes of using spare capacity for production for charitable work.
They’ve begun to overhaul a former elementary school in Decatur that their company bought, where they plan to put their expanded version of Foodworks into action. Construction contracts have been signed and subcontractors have begun work, Caccomo said. The target is to have the bakery section running by January and the “wet kitchen” up by February. They’ve also signed a collaboration deal with nearby Richland Community College.
“A Poughkeepsie concept from 18 years ago has really taken root out here,” said Caccomo.
Private funding got them this far, and now they’ve scored a big win, a $2 million investment from Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM, one of America’s biggest names in food, agriculture and fuel. Headquartered in Chicago, it happens to have a research and development center in Decatur, literally next door to the old Brush College School building that Foodworks acquired.
Caccomo said they will use about $1 million of the ADM funds in renovating the building and then invest the other million to buy and install commercial cooking and food-processing equipment. National Foodworks will also do work directly for ADM, Milano said.
Announcement of the ADM investment was made by its president and CEO, Juan Luciano, on Sept. 25. The company put up a YouTube video of his remarks, which were made at an event hailing a separate development, the marketing launch of the Midwest Inland Port, a multi-modal transit and cargo facility in central Illinois.
“We’re also joining forces with creative entrepreneurs to turn great ideas into reality here in Decatur,” said Luciano. “For instance, a start-up firm, National Foodworks Services, is establishing an innovation incubator to help small creative food businesses accelerate product development, packaging and production.”
The ADM chief’s vision was that the Foodworks center is an “innovation engine” that will fit in with other initiatives, like ADM’s own broad food production and its applications laboratory, helping turn central Illinois “into the preeminent center for food and beverage innovation in the Midwest and perhaps even the entire nation.”
Such big dreams are a far cry from the little Foodworks that occupied a former Woolworth store at 372 Main St. in the City of Poughkeepsie. The idea began around 1997 as a creature of the Poughkeepsie Partnership, a blend of business, government and nonprofit leaders. Their mission was to revitalize downtown, and Foodworks held promise as a way to bring in entrepreneurs, add some traffic and create jobs. It lasted 13 years.
Milano came in as a tenant and later wound up managing Hudson Valley Foodworks for its last few years after previous managers had moved on. He said Foodworks began in the earlier days of such incubator kitchens and that it was the largest one attempted, but that it suffered from persistent funding shortfalls.
The final blow was that the building needed major repairs, including a deteriorated roof that had to be replaced to reach standards acceptable to government inspections. The Partnership didn’t find the funds to do it. Foodworks wrapped up in June 2010, Milano said.
Dutchess County clerk records show the Partnership’s property parcels were seized by the city when the Partnership did not pay up on back water and sewer rates, taxes and special assessments. The city sold the parcels to a company, 1888 Hudson Properties of Hopewell Junction, in 2013 and in April of this year.
Reflecting on the experience gained from the Poughkeepsie venture, Caccomo said he thought that having Foodworks structured as a nonprofit was not the best way to go.
“The key thing we learned in Poughkeepsie is that it has to be for-profit and it has to be run by a few partners and not a committee of 15 people,” he said. “We’ll bring investors in, but it has to be a business.”
The old Foodworks was under-capitalized, and had picked a problem building, Caccomo said. “It was really a problem of economics. They just didn’t have the numbers.”
“The idea is fabulous,” Caccomo said. And in Illinois, “It’s capturing attention like I’ve never seen.”
Craig Wolf: 845-437-4815; firstname.lastname@example.org