Being nervous was the farthest thing from Te’Lario Watkins II’s mind when he faced a panel of judges at last year’s Ohio Signature Food Contest, co-sponsored by Ohio Farm Bureau.
“I am not afraid of being in front of adults,” said Te’Lario unabashedly as he talks about being one of two winners of the contest in 2017.
Yes, he was just 9 years old and yes, all the judges were adults. But he’d already convinced hundreds of shoppers at farm markets that his homemade Shiitake & Onion Soup Mix was awesome. He’d already talked glowingly about his growing mushroom business on the local television news and on television personality Steve Harvey’s show.
Explaining to the judges why he wanted to sell his soup mix in grocery stores was easy compared to all of that.
“One of the judges said there were endless possibilities for the soup mix,” said Te’Lario’s dad, Te’Lario Watkins I, who helped make the presentation. “They were really eating up the samples.”
The annual statewide contest is sponsored by the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) and Ohio Farm Bureau with the goal of bringing innovative products to market. Last year, about 50 people entered and 11 were asked to make presentations to the judges.
Winners receive all kinds of help, including shelf-stability testing and advice on business planning, product development, labeling, regulations and batch-product preparations. They also have access to a commercially licensed kitchen, the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen, in Bowling Green.
“If you want the chance to make your dream a reality…this is the contest for you,” said Jim Konecny, marketing and communications manager for CIFT. “We hear from people regularly across Ohio who talk about their beloved food recipe that’s been in their family for generations. You just need the passion to move your product forward with the ultimate goal of landing on actual grocery store shelves.”
The contest has set Te’Lario and his family, of Columbus, down a path none of them had dreamed of three years ago when Te’Lario became interested in gardening. He was 7, had just finished growing basil and cut grass for a Cub Scout project and was looking for something else to grow.
“It was winter, and when he came home one day and said he’d read in a book that mushrooms grow in the dark, we found a company that sold a mushroom-growing kit online,” Watkins said. Two weeks later they had full-grown mushrooms. They bought more kits, grew more mushrooms and decided to sell them at summer farmers markets.
“My wife and I are both teachers, so we’re off in the summer, and we thought it would be a neat project,” Watkins said. “We started out at one market on the West Side, then added the Easton market. People really loved the story and there was a demand for mushrooms.”
The soup mix evolved during the first year when they had leftover mushrooms. First they dehydrated them and sold them by the bag. Then Te’Lario’s mom, Mykl, mixed the dehydrated mushrooms with basil, turmeric, sea salt and other spices and created the soup mix.
She likened it to dried onion soup mix and used it in the same way, flavoring hamburgers or mixing it with sour cream to make a dip. Market customers loved it.
Thanks to the food contest, they’re several steps closer to selling the mix nationwide. Labeling is nearly ready and they hope to soon do a product test run at the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen.
Charles Garrett, the other 2017 contest winner, isn’t as far along in preparing his winning hot pepper relish for market but he’s planning a big push this year.
“I’m a huge relish guy,” said Garrett, who lives in the tiny town of Newton Falls between Warren and Akron. “Primarily I’m focused on peppers; that’s my niche.”
He started making pepper relish after tasting pepper strips that a co-worker at the plastics plant where they worked brought for lunch. Garrett mixes ingredients including pineapple, ketchup, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and various types of peppers he grows to make the relish, which is a hit with friends and relatives. He also stirs up other varieties — barbeque and jalapeno — as well as hot pepper jam.
So far, Garrett has used the contest sponsorship to test his relish for shelf stability (it passed), but in the coming year he hopes to get help with labeling and business planning. A chronic illness has forced him to give up his manufacturing job, so he expects to have plenty of time to grow peppers and make relish this summer.
“It’s been a hard learning curve, being an entrepreneur,” he said. Under Ohio law, he can’t sell relish unless it’s prepared in a licensed cannery kitchen; he hopes to do that at a Youngstown cannery that’s opening soon.
2018 Ohio Signature Food Contest
The entry deadline for this year’s contest is May 31. Contest details
“The contest always brings out some very high-quality products,” Konecny said. “Enthusiasm continues to grow each and every year.”
Featured photo caption: Nine-year-old Te’Lario Watkins of Tiger Mushroom Farms recently sold his mushroom products at Worthington Farmers Market, a routine sales location of his farming venture. The successful, young entrepreneur was one of the winners of the 2017 Ohio Signature Food Contest. Here he is with his sister, Kennedy and father, Te’Lario Watkins I. Photo by James De Camp