By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Mar 29, 2012 at 9:01 AM

Have you ever dreamed of owning your own food-related business?

If so, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Reliable Water Services, a local provider of commercial water heaters, boilers and water softeners, would like to give you a head start on your planning. On April 2, they will launch the Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Challenge, a regional contest to find the next great food entrepreneur.

Armen Hadjinian, program coordinator for MATC's new Enterpreneurship Center, says he has seen an increase in the number of individuals who want to break free from the corporate grind and start their own businesses. He attributes what he sees to a number of factors including underemployment, resume building, a shift in attitudes toward self-reliance and independence, and entrepreneurship, innovative thinking and creativity, which lends itself to the competitive corporate climate.

He also sees passion as a key motivator for entrepreneurs, sometimes even more so than the lure of a large income.

"Money may have limited appeal," he suggests, "Yet entrepreneurship can bring power and control over one's career and family. It's sensible to start small, to test, learn and attempt."

And that's what a variety of local food entrepreneurs are doing.

Back in 2008, after being downsized from a corporate job, Byron Jackson turned a 30-year love affair with fiery foods into a full-time gourmet hot sauce business. Man's Best Friend Sauces markets products to a niche market of chile lovers who crave imaginative "purebred" hot sauces, each of which is identified with its own unique dog breed.

According to Jackson, MBF's growth is as much linked to the dogs on the bottles as the products' inventive flavor profiles. But, Jackson's success didn't come without growing pains.

"Prior to 2008, MBF Sauces was more of a glorified hobby. At that time, expenses didn't matter to me because I always had a good job to subsidize them. These days I remain a passionate hot sauce artisan, but I'm also very prudent and much more aware of my actual expenses."

Jackson also has advice for anyone thinking about starting his or her own business.

"Before you get started, ask the question 'Why do I need to share this with the world?'" Jackson says. "If it takes more than few seconds to answer, you may want to reconsider your idea as a hobby instead of a full-time business."

Amber Atlee, along with two colleagues from Waukesha County Technical College, answered that question after finding that there was a demand for a service that provided fresh, upscale options for independent seniors and others who wanted heat-and-eat meals delivered to their homes once weekly.

In July of 2011, they started a personal chef and catering company called Culinary Twists, and began offering an ever-changing menu of main dishes and sides made with fresh ingredients.

Like many small businesses, the partners from Culinary Twists needed to meet a number of logistical challenges before launching their business.

First, they needed to conduct research to determine whether there was a need for their particular niche business and to determine how they would compete with current competitors in the market. Next, they needed to find a commercial kitchen that would allow them to rent space for a limited amount of time each week. Finally, they needed to ensure that they had the appropriate licenses from the state, as well as each county in which they wanted to conduct their business.

"Just because you have a good idea and really like to cook doesn't mean that you will make a great business owner," Atlee says. "We're fortunate to have three partners who each bring something different to the table – one of us is great at sales, one is great at the finances, the other keeps our kitchen running smoothly."

Do you think you have what it takes? Beginning April 2, aspiring chefs and home cooks throughout Wisconsin are invited to enter The Hottest Kitchen Entrepreneur Challenge at by submitting a short application and a photo of their recipe or product concept.

All entries must be submitted by midnight on Friday, May 18. Full contest rules and details are available right on the website.

"We know there are passionate cooks who have the beginnings of a food business idea and others who may have taken the first steps but could use some encouragement and advice," says Hadjinian.

The grand prize winner will receive $2,500 in seed money from Reliable to start their business, a comprehensive entrepreneurial consultation package from MATC and a gift certificate for professional cookware from The Boelter Companies.

Finalists will be selected in mid-June to participate in a final judging event at Cuisine, the student-operated restaurant for MATC's culinary arts program in late summer.

Judges for the contest will include:

  • Justin Aprahamian, chef de cuisine for Sanford Restaurant and James Beard semi-finalist
  • Lynn Sbonik, co-owner of Beans & Barley Deli, Market & Full Service Café
  • Andrea Marquez-Paquin and Andrew Paquin, owners of La Luna, a local company which provides fresh, authentic Mexican food products sold in select grocers' freezers
  • George Flees, general manager of Parkside 23, a restaurant in Brookfield featuring American food made with fresh, local ingredients

"We are so excited to help a local entrepreneur who has an innovative food business idea but needs resources to get started," said Lynne Robinson, president of Reliable Water Services. "It's very gratifying to know we can help kick-start someone's culinary dream."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.