By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Apr 02, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Did you know that Wisconsin is the No. 1 producer of cheese, beans, cranberries and ginseng? Or that we inhabit the number two position for butter, milk, and dairy cows? That we are number two in the nation for organic production?

Were you aware that Wisconsin also ranks in the top five for its production of carrots, potatoes, sweet peas, sweet corn, maple syrup, oats, tart cherries, cucumbers, mint and food-manufactured products?

If so, you won't be surprised to hear that approximately 18 months ago, Milwaukee 7, the regional economic development collaborative of Southeast Wisconsin, identified food and beverage manufacturing as a target sector for economic growth.

Wisconsin possesses considerable strength in this area, with more than 240 manufacturers employing nearly 15,000 individuals, most of whom earn a family-supporting wage. As the group met with industry representatives over the past year, it was determined that forming an industry network would be a key strategy to grow more of these jobs.

The result? FaB Milwaukee, the Milwaukee 7 Food and Beverage Industry Network, a group whose mission is to grow, expand and attract world-class businesses and talent in the Milwaukee region.

The cluster is an outgrowth of an advisory council led by Cathy Henry, president and COO of Sysco Food Service; Giacomo Falluca, president and CEO of Palermo's Pizza; and Eric Oleson, president and co-owner of O&H Danish Bakery. Members include Sandy Syburg, owner of White Oak Farm/Purple Cow Organics; Tim Peoples of Ocean Spray Cranberries; beverage industry leaders like Russ Klisch, president of Lakefront Brewery; and Guy Rehorst, owner of Great Lakes Distillery; among others.

The network's first Executive Food Forum was attended by more than 40 industry leaders and sponsored by MillerCoors and Milwaukee Water Works. Designed to connect and facilitate resources to drive job growth and innovation in food and beverage production, distribution and systems, the group aims to foster industry growth, workforce strength, sustainable industry innovation, increased exportation outside the region and the development of new businesses.

"Our mission is to make the Milwaukee region an easy choice to innovate, start, expand or locate your food or beverage operation and enjoy a rewarding industry career," adds Shelley Jurewicz, vice president of economic development at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "Ultimately, our success will be measured by job creation in food and beverage manufacturing and innovation."

But, FaB Milwaukee's mission, while focusing primarily on economic expansion and job creation, will also leverage Wisconsin's unique position to support the farm-to-table movement.

"While our primary goal is to grow jobs in food and beverage manufacturing," remarks Jurewicz, "we are working our way out across the food system, from farm to factory to fork, from executives to those working in the industry to students and educators – all will be critical to our success. It should be noted that our website features and content will develop more deeply as more industry constituents are engaged."

FaB Milwaukee will also, ultimately, impact Milwaukee's dining scene and the food that local inhabitants see on their dinner tables.

"As job creation in the restaurant sub-sector is less of a focus for us, expectations have not been developed," Jurewicz admits. But, she foresees the industry benefiting nonetheless. "It is clear, though, that restaurateurs and owners will become more aware of a larger array of locally produced food and beverage products. For example, do you put out a bottle of Tabasco or locally made MBF Hot Sauce at your restaurant?"

Jurewicz emphasizes that, although FaB Milwaukee has a great deal of powerful potential, it will take the participation and sweat equity of numerous industry experts and willing food enthusiasts to keep the initiative moving forward.

"As more people become aware of our efforts, we recommend they go to FaBMilwaukee.com to become a registered member and look at a variety of action groups we are creating and to see how they can best connect to our initiatives."

For more information, or to join the network, visit FaBMilwaukee.com.

The next FaB Executive Food Forum is scheduled for Tuesday, May 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 10499 Innovation Drive, in Wauwatosa. It will feature a CEO panel hosted by Grant Thornton on "Social Media in the Food Industry."

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.