Q & A with Dale Nelson, local processed specialty foods expert

  • Written by 21 Acres

CanningDale Nelson is owner and founder of Farmhouse Kitchens, a full-service specialty food development company in Washington State. Nelson has 25 years of experience in the food industry and a true passion in the artisan food environment.  He serves as a volunteer on the Board of Directors for the 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville.  As a faculty member of the School at 21 Acres, Dale is teaching a five week course titled, Introduction to Processed Foods, beginning on March 1. A free preview class of the course is offered Thursday, February 23, from 6:30-8:30. (For more details visit, We caught up with Dale recently to ask him some questions and to hear his thoughts about the market potential for local processed foods.

Q: The world of specialty foods seems to be exploding.  Everywhere you look there seem to be gourmet foods on the shelf.  Why do you think this is?

A: Consumers are very interested in knowing where their food is produced.  The very best gourmet foods are often made with the best ingredients, which I find are usually sourced directly from local farms.  That’s not always true, but informed consumers know to read labels and see where the ingredients were grown. In fact, in this economic downturn when families are cutting back on household spending, the amount that people are spending on specialty foods is still going up – researchers are finding that people are selecting nice small gourmet treats, which is more affordable than larger splurges, and enjoying these delicious foods.

Q: Knowing where you food comes from, and “buying local” is really appealing to consumers these days.  More and more farmers are considering ways to process their fruits and vegetables into value-added items and selling them at farmers markets, cooperative grocery stores and even at traditional venues.  Can you describe what the future looks like related to this?

A: The future definitely looks like it will continue to show an upward trend for value-added processing of local farm products.  Farmers are looking for ways to diversify their businesses and to lengthen their seasons.  They can do this by processing their abundance in the high growing season into wonderful, flavorful products that consumers can buy year round.

Q:  There are many people who seem to have special recipes that they like, and that they say everyone requests that they make it over and over again. Should they consider taking this on as a business venture?

A: It all depends. Does she have a reliable local source for high quality ingredients? Are other people, not just family members, willing to purchase the products? If so, and she’s able to spend focused time and energy thinking through all the steps that it takes to bring a good product to market, then I would highly encourage her to pursue the idea.  Customers want new products and they are very interested in buying from local cottage industry businesses.

Q: If someone does decide to take this on, what are the first steps she needs to do to make this a reality?

A: Just like starting any business, it’s important to conduct proper business plan research and to pursue related topics such as local and state licensing, food safety and how to source ingredients.  If someone is just starting out on this venture, it would make sense to begin thinking about marketing strategies and product development.  I would add that the sooner someone focuses on how to distribute and sell their product, the sooner they will have business success.  It’s good to think through how and who is going to be running the business on a day-to-day basis.   All this planning and effort definitely takes some resources to get started; money and labor, to name a few.

I must stress that I strongly encourage the startup business to talk to others who have gone before, as there is much wisdom to gain from other people in the specialty food business.

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