Minnesota ag companies

Three generations of the Smude family including John (right), his son Tom and grandson Mitchell. The Smudes make their own sunflower oil brand. Photo courtesy of Christina Jones Photography, www.christinajohnsonphotography.com

With something for every taste bud, Minnesota is a happening place for food. Leading companies like Cargill, Hormel and General Mills are just a few of the big players making the food industry the state’s second largest manufacturing sector. Not only that, Minnesota has an exciting restaurant scene with chefs including Gavin Kaysen, owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, and is home to food celebrities like Andrew Zimmern.

Because of this influence and leadership, both small businesses and startups such as Annie B’s Popcorn and Caramels, and Smude’s Sunflower Oil have found Minnesota to be the perfect place to grow their businesses.

Here are their recipes for success:

Smude’s Brand – A Game Changer in Cooking Oil

Looking to Mother Nature to find a more drought-tolerant crop, one farm family in Pierz started growing sunflowers. Soon after, Smude’s Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil hit shelves in 2010. Today, Smude’s product line is sold online and can be found at multiple grocery stores and chains, local farmers markets, and restaurants.

And they keep expanding – the sunflower oil is currently available for purchase at Super Target throughout Minnesota and through target.com.

“They actually sought us out,” owner Tom Smude says. “The hardest part is effective marketing, but the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has been helping us, including participating in some bigger trade shows out in Chicago and New York.”

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Although high-oleic sunflower oil is recognized by cooks internationally, U.S. consumers are just starting to move away from traditional butter and canola oil, opting instead for this heart- healthy, vitamin E-rich substitute.

Despite the challenges, Smude is creatively pursuing new markets, whether that means selling into other industries like cosmetics or teaming up with local small businesses. After all, when it comes to food, Minnesota is a melting pot of opportunities.

Annie B's

Photo courtesy of Annie B’s.

Annie B’s – Sweetness Destined for Great Things

In January 2013, food enthusiasts Justin and Amanda Henke became the new owners of Annie B’s, a family-owned company of 35 years. Since then, the couple has continued the candy legacy by expanding its product offerings and growing retail distribution. The company has also received impressive accolades along the way, including being named “Oprah’s favorite gift” of 2014 and nominated for Martha Stewart’s American Made Awards in 2015.

The Henkes attest: “It’s fun and rewarding to be surrounded by a nurturing, enthusiastic food community. We thrive off energy from our talented industry peers, from movers and shakers like Way Better Snacks to giants such as General Mills.”

The couple purchased B.T. McElrath Chocolatier in 2015, and a line of tasty new products is already in the works. As for advice for fellow aspiring food entrepreneurs, the Henkes stress the importance of making connections with people, which they say has helped them beyond measure.

With Annie B’s seeking to increase its retail store presence nationwide and in Canada, one must-have point of contact is the MDA. From attending trade shows at a fraction of the cost to sampling programs at retail stores and export assistance, the MDA is an asset for small businesses. For Annie B’s, attending trade shows, such as the Fancy Food Show, has been key.

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“Because of these trade shows, we’ve averaged an additional $10,000 of revenue per month,” says Tore Swenson, vice president of sales at Annie B’s. Swenson expects revenue to grow as the business continues to participate.

Crediting the help of Brian Erickson at the MDA Ag Marketing and Development Division, Swenson says, “One thing I like about working with the MDA is that they have one person working directly with you. Brian always responds quickly and helps out whenever we need.”


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