With ice cream, hors d’oeuvres and samples of the latest food start-up, A+ Berry, visitors mingled and celebrated the 40th anniversary of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Food Processing Center at Nebraska Innovation Campus June 9.
The Food Processing Center was founded in 1983 following legislative action led by then-Gov. Bob Kerrey and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. It was launched to serve as a business incubator research facility that could elevate the state’s agribusiness and entrepreneurship.
The center was first located on East Campus. It joined the Food Industry Complex when the complex was dedicated in 1990. In 2015, the Food Processing Center was moved to Nebraska Innovation Campus, where it became part of the Food Innovation Center — a 178,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the science of all things food.
The move to Innovation Campus allowed the Food Processing Center to expand its footprint and the services it offers. It has become the home of products produced for the UNL Dairy Store, and has helped develop commercial food products for companies including Yasso, David’s Famous Gourmet Frozen Custard, Suji’s Korean Cuisine and more. The Food Processing Center also played a crucial role in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic for campus and the state by producing more than 200,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, which were distributed to schools, hospitals, child cares and other essential businesses during the pandemic.
The 40th anniversary celebration began with tours of the center, including the Sensory Lab, the Product Development Lab, and pilot plants, which contain a dairy processing plant, extruder, high pressure processing and brewery lab.
Terry Howell, director of the center, led a panel discussion with former director Steve Taylor, professor emeritus in food science and technology; alumni Tessa Porter, president and founder of Sprinkk; Ashley Bernstein, senior sensory scientist for Welles Enterprises; and Jessi Hoeft, current board chairperson for the center and founder of Ensign Beverages. The panel shared its collective history of the center and looked toward the future.
“We tried a lot of different things over the years,” said Taylor, who was director of the center from 1987 until 2006. “Some of them worked fabulously well and still exist as part of FPC’s activities. Some of them failed, but we were always trying something new and different. The niche I’m most proud of would be the one that Jill Gifford directed so admirably for so many years, and that’s the (Food) Entrepreneur Program. That is a niche that this university can fill for small-scale manufacturers and farmers who want to get into vertical integration, closer to the consumer.”
Both Porter and Bernstein honed their skills and expertise in food science first as undergraduates at Nebraska, and said the knowledge and mentorship they gained while student workers in the Food Processing Center directly impacted their future careers.
Porter recalled working at a fruitcake factory in Beatrice, Nebraska, which was a client of the center, and later, having the opportunity to branch into her true passion, candy.
“A fond memory is getting to start up some candy processing at the Food Processing Center, and FPC has always been wildly supportive of this idea of ‘I want to make candy and I want to learn more about candy,’ and that really helped spearhead my career,” Porter said.
For Bernstein, it’s been a privilege following along with some of the successful startups she first worked on as a student.
“I think the most exciting thing, now that I look back at it, is we helped the startup Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt, and now in the dairy industry — specifically in the ice cream industry — I work with them again,” Bernstein said. “And I was there to see them from their very early startup days to how successful they are now. That’s one of the greatest memories, and working with all of our small businesses over the years.”
Taylor said he knows “opportunities are out there” for the Food Processing Center to continue its success.
“I think the most important thing is to listen to those small-scale manufacturers, startup ventures and mid-scale manufacturers,” Taylor said. “They’ll tell you what the obstacles are to their growth, and that’s where the University of Nebraska can fill come unique niches, not only for Nebraska, but for the whole Midwest, and probably the whole country, because we’re still very unique.”
The university community can help the Food Processing Center by becoming a trained food panelist in the Sensory Lab. Those interested can contact Julie Reiling, senior consultant, at firstname.lastname@example.org.