Greater Milwaukee is a sturdy hub for emerging food artists and continues to gain acclaim for the impressive amount of locally owned and operated businesses and restaurants within the foodie scene. Our city has many unique gourmet restaurants and businesses, mobile food trucks and distinctive product lines that continue to enter the market, but starting a business is not an easy feat. Giving local entrepreneurs a springboard to help begin realizing or further expand their food dreams is Milwaukee’s annual Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Challenge.
Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), which has a great culinary program and entrepreneurial center; Reliable Water Services, a local provider of commercial water heaters, boilers and softeners for restaurants; and FaB Wisconsin, a food and beverage industry cluster helping to encourage other entrepreneurs to grow their business, are now in their third year of sponsoring the challenge, which seeks to find Wisconsin’s next great food entrepreneurs. Different from a recipe contest, this competition seeks to support inspired culinary concepts, so participants are not only judged on taste, but also creativity, possibility, marketability, packaging and other important factors that help lead to business success.
This year, participants entered in one of two categories: the Start Up category for those who are ready to take the next step and get their product on the market, and the Early Stage category for those who have already gone to market in small ways, but have been in the business three years or less and are looking to take their product to the next level.
This year, dozens of entrepreneurs entered the Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Challenge. Three have been chosen as finalists in each category to compete for the two grand prizes of $2,000 seed money from Reliable Water Services, a comprehensive entrepreneur consultation package from MATC, a private meeting with FaB Wisconsin’s food industry executives and a funding and growth consultation with financial specialists at MW Growth Partners. Finalists are Mary Pellettieri’s (Milwaukee) Top Note Tonics sodas, Jennifer Goldbeck’s (Cedarburg) Packaged European Buttercream icings, and Nicole Meredith’s (Milwaukee) Wilhemena’s Pies pecan pies in the Start Up category; and Jackie Valent Lucca’s (Brookfield) Love Dust spices, Austin Ashley, Hallie Ashley and Zac Mathes’ (Viroqua) Wisco Pop! sodas, and Robyn Wright’s (Dousman) PoSaNa Organics gluten-free baking mixes in the Early Stage category.
Christel Henke, the Challenge’s project coordinator, says, “Milwaukee has such a great food culture and is so supportive of new food ideas, judging by the great number of restaurants and products that come into the market. It’s really fun to be able to help move forward some of these new concepts in a market that’s really receptive for it. And from a new business standpoint, from the aspect of supporting the local economy, we’re really helping move forward some of these new entrepreneurs.”
The final judging will take place at a Food Network-style event on Thursday, July 17, at noon at MATC’s new student-operated 6th Street Café (1015 N. Sixth St.). The event will feature eight renowned food expert judges who will listen to each finalist’s three-minute presentation about their concept, taste-test the product and then decide the grand prize winner of each category. A few judges include Kurt Fogle, executive pastry chef of SURG Restaurant Group, Lynn Sbonik, co-owner of Beans & Barley, Jen Ede, publisher of Edible Milwaukee magazine and Rakesh (Ryan) Rehan, owner of Café India. And the best part about the event? The final judging is open to the public and samples of each participant’s product will be available to try.