Local restaurateur Neal Brown is entering new culinary territory this month, launching a baby food business from his upscale Broad Ripple eatery.
The 37-year-old first forged new ground in the Indianapolis food scene in May 2006, when he opened L'explorateur, a hip restaurant that builds its avantgarde menu around locally grown food.
His kid cuisine won't be quite as cutting-edge as the grown-up grub-think elk tartar: raw ground elk meat seasoned and topped with herbs, capers, greens and braised, pickled elk tongue-but it is intended to train young palates to appreciate flavors that don't come from a jar.
"Our reputation is that we're a really innovative restaurant and Indianapolis [residents have] a reputation for not being very adventurous eaters," he said. "But you have to strike the right balance."
Something seems to be working. Although Brown declined to release sales figures, he said the restaurant is on track to turn a profit by May, in line with projections.
So now he's hitting the entrepreneurial trail again.
"We have a serious childhood obesity epidemic that's finally starting to get some attention," Brown said. "Why not introduce [fresh foods] at a young age?"
Brown's inspiration is his 7-month-old son, Greyson Samurai. His wife, Lindey, is a big believer in breast-feeding, but when the couple started introducing solid foods into Greyson's diet recently, Brown recognized the business possibilities.
Dubbed Izzy and Grey's Gourmet Baby Food-after Greyson and the couple's 6-year-old, Isabel-Brown's new enterprise would tap into a burgeoning segment of the nation's $3.8 billion baby food market. Organic baby food sales jumped from $69.5 million in 2003 to $148.9 million in 2007, according to New Yorkbased research firm Nielsen Co.
Brown thinks his baby food will stand out from the jarred products produced by larger companies, thanks in large part to a French cooking technique he also uses for some of his restaurant's dishes. Food prepared with the sous vide method is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch and cooked in simmering water for a long time, maintaining more nutrients while still killing off bacteria. Peas end up with a more brilliant green, for example, and keep more of their natural flavor.
Once cooked, ice-cube-size portions of the food will be wrapped in plastic and flash-frozen to lock in nutrients. One big selling point for his fruit and veggie line is that he will be able to track every batch of butternut squash or sweet potatoes back to the producer and tell consumers about each farmer's growing methods.
"The trend of restaurants is for people to want to know where your food came from," Brown said. "I think that should translate to baby food, even more so."
He also is experimenting with easy-todigest spices to make the food more interesting for the baby's palates-without causing tummy aches. For example, Brown's carrot recipe includes ginger for flavor and olive oil to aid digestion; he's also experimenting with locally produced sorghum, a natural sweetener.
Many in the small-scale agriculture field said they're unaware of anyone else making baby food in central Indiana and think Brown is onto something. He said he's found a few firms nationally that sell locally produced, organic baby food, but only jarred products.
"I think it's a fabulous idea," said Victoria Wesseler, a Lebanon-based freelance food writer who runs www.goinglocal-info.com, a Web site about central Indiana's homegrown scene.
Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in locally grown produce, she said. By learning about the farmer and the growing method, they feel more able to control what they're eating and can be sure it's fresh.
"It just makes sense that, as these people have families, they'll want that for their kids, too," Wesseler said.
Chris Eley agrees. As proprietor of Goose the Market, a new store at 25th and Delaware streets that carries locally produced meats, eggs, cheese and produce, he knows parents who buy locally grown produce and make baby food at home. Prepared food that still meets their standards likely will be well-received, he said.
"I definitely think there's a market for what he's doing," Eley said.
Time will tell. This month, Brown is sending batches of his food home with "focus groups"- mainly friends who are also parents of infants-for testing. And he's working with a local pediatrician to make sure the foods are healthful and easy on the digestive tract.
Once the recipes are finalized, Brown wants to sell the food through the restaurant first.
"For five hours of the night, five nights a week, we have a pretty captive audience we can market to," he said. "I can't think of many other businesses that can say that."
Step two will be to get it stocked at some local stores, such as Broad Ripple's Sunflower Market and BÃ©bÃ© GÃ¢tÃ©, a Broad Ripple boutique that carries clothing and bedding.
Sunflower already sells some Indiana eats, and Manager Maggie Zillinger said she thought the baby-food line would be a hit with "local-vores"-the growing group of consumers who focus on eating locally produced food.
"We see a lot of families come into the store because they're concerned about what they're feeding their children" and about the environmental impact of importing foods from far away, she said.
Ironically enough, the store's productstocking decisions usually are made in the company's Minnesota headquarters, though-albeit with local input.
BÃ©bÃ© GÃ¢tÃ© co-owner Stephany Hester also sees a demand.
"People want natural, organic ingredients for children's food," she said.
Once he establishes Izzy and Grey's in central Indiana, Brown wants to build a national following through an Internet storefront. He's still considering shipping methods that will get the food to buyers quickly without being cost-prohibitive.
Building a national distribution network often starts at the grass-roots level, said Laura Davenport, sales director for Zionsville-based Traders Point Creamery. The creamery took its products to several farmers' markets to build a following; those customers then asked stores to carry the product.
After Traders Point worked a farmers' market in Chicago, enough customers asked Whole Foods to carry the creamery's products that the grocery chain took an interest. But it wanted more stock than the creamery could deliver on its own, so Traders Point signed on with a distributor, Davenport said.
"We don't have a hard time convincing [stores to stock a product] once they taste it," she said. Indeed, creamery products are now carried in stores from Connecticut to Nebraska.
Brown appears to be taking all the right steps to launch a consumer line, said Purdue University professor Joan Fulton, codirector of the school's Agricultural Innovation and Commercialization Center.
"He's already been in business, and there's a base [of consumers] who already know him," she said.
And the same diners who belly up for elk tartar-usually well-educated folks with above-average incomes willing to spend more for locally produced food for themselves-are doubly willing to spend the money on their children or grandchildren.
Creating that same intimacy for Internet sales will be tough, but necessary to build volume and make the baby food line profitable, Fulton said.
"There, he'll be going after the same people now buying jarred organic baby food," she said. "He'll have to make sure his Web site sets up that personalized connection."
Offering product traceability will be a big boon and most likely the main way to differentiate his product from other offerings, Fulton said.
To finance the startup, Brown is lining up about $10,000 from two likely investors, mostly for additional kitchen equipment.
"I learned a long time ago that if you don't have to [use your own money], you don't," he said.
Although he'd like to sell his baby food nationwide, Brown said if the business doesn't take off, he's still guaranteed a minimum local following.
"I'm planning on having more children, so I'll have to feed them, too," he said.