Chef Chantay Skrine is dicing onions for her collard greens. Skrine, owner of Sweetay’s LLC in Binghamton, N.Y., is at work in a shared commercial kitchen on the campus of Cornell Cooperative Extension Broome County. The past two years have been demanding, but her presence here signals a major step in the growth of her food-based business.
“Being able to utilize the kitchen here at the CCE has been awesome because I'm able to work with some amazing people.”- Chantay Skrine
This episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension's ‘Extension Out Loud’ podcast charts Chantay's journey from home to commercial kitchen and beyond. Amy Willis, Food Systems Project Coordinator, and Katie Matsushima, Food Development Specialist, of CCE Broome County join the conversation to talk about the full range of support her team provides to help Southern Tier chefs successfully scale up a food-based business.
“We always like to say, ‘What do you want to make? Do you have a business plan?’ We always just try to take a second to make sure that we can understand the bigger picture,” says Matsushima. The bigger picture often includes licensing and legal requirements. Combined with a scarcity of available commercial kitchens in Broome County, successfully navigating this landscape requires support and guidance.
“You start at home you grow, develop a base, customers. you start developing those smaller pieces. And then it's time to really scale” -Amy Willis
CCE Broome County offers a unique environment to support home processors who are ready to scale up production. The commercial kitchen is adjacent to the farmer's market. This means that fresh, local produce is available to aspiring chefs. Combined with CCE staff who can help navigate the many challenges facing small food-based businesses the odds of making a successful transition are dramatically increased.
PAUL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I’m your host Paul. Treadwell. In this episode, we delve into the vibrant world of culinary entrepreneurship and the transformative power of food. Join us as we meet Chantay Skrine, the creative force behind Sweetays LLC, and learn about her inspiring journey from home-based cooking to commercial success. Chantay's passion for cooking and her determination to leave a legacy for her children led her to pursue her dreams with the support of key players in the local food ecosystem.
In conversation with Chantay are Katie Matsushima, the Commercial Kitchen Manager and Product Development Specialist at CC Broome, and Amy Willis, the Food Systems Director at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome. Together, they explore the process of transitioning from home-based food processing to commercial kitchens, the intricacies of licensing, and the joys and challenges of bringing food products to market.
This episode also highlights the pivotal role of Cooperative Extension in nurturing food entrepreneurs, providing them with mentorship, guidance, and a supportive community. The commercial kitchen on the campus of Broome CCE serves as a hub for culinary creativity, where entrepreneurs like Chantay can refine their recipes, develop new products, and connect with local farmers to create unique, regionally inspired foods.
CHANTAY SKRINE: I'm Chantay Skrine of Sweetay LLC.
PAUL: Hi, Chantay.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Hi.
PAUL: Nice to meet you.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Same to you.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Hi there. I'm Katie Matsushima. I'm the CC Broome commercial kitchen manager and product development specialist.
PAUL: Hi, Katie.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Hello.
AMY WILLIS: And I'm Amy Willis. I'm our food systems director here at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome.
PAUL: Thank you all for joining us today. So, Chantay, can you tell us a little bit about your journey? And what has brought you to this table today sitting down with these two other women to talk to me.
CHANTAY SKRINE: The love for food has brought me to this table. And working with these ladies here at CE has helped me take my business to the next level as well as get my food and products out to the customers via the farmer's market, via the Taste of New York.
Being able to utilize the kitchen here at the CE has been an awesome connection because I'm able to produce my products and work with some amazing people.
PAUL: So let's go back to 2021 when you started. What was the motivation to start?
CHANTAY SKRINE: My motivation to start is my passion for cooking, one. And two, for my children. I wanted to leave a legacy for them and start something for them in the future. I started from home making custom cakes and cookies and chips and candy apples, anything that I could do from home with a home processing license.
Then, I was able to link up with these lovely ladies and I was able to get my food processing license, 20-C licensing, which allowed me to start moving into the catering spectrum and producing food like as far as food, not just snacks and treats. So I was able to take it to the next level last year. So I'm grateful for that.
PAUL: I'm curious about the home processing license. What did you have to go through to get a license to actually prepare food in your home?
CHANTAY SKRINE: Through the agriculture-- it's Broome County Ag.
AMY WILLIS: So Department of Agriculture.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Department of-- there you go. I had to go through them. I could never get all of it together. I'm sorry.
PAUL: So what's that like though? We normally cook for our families and our home and we don't think too much about it. But what's it like to have somebody come in and evaluate your kitchen?
CHANTAY SKRINE: With the home processing license, they don't necessarily have to do that.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Absolutely. That's not something-- depending on what you're producing. So I didn't have to go through that. I just had to really apply and let them know exactly what I was creating from home. And that was pretty much it. It was actually a lot less than what I thought it would be.
PAUL: Yeah, there's a lot less than what I imagined it to be.
CHANTAY SKRINE: But once you start producing food and stuff like that, then that's a different level. So now, you definitely need a commercial kitchen in order to operate.
PAUL: So how did you make the connection to-- who did you first connect with here at--
CHANTAY SKRINE: Amy, actually. When I first started from my home, I had contacted them. When I very first started out because I wanted to get into their farmer's market. But there was a lot of things that I wanted to produce that I had to have the 20-C licensing in order to do, so I waited to do that.
And in that time, I was still in other farmer's markets with the cookies and stuff like that. And then, I was able to get in the door once they had an opening. And everything else is history.
PAUL: Amy, do you remember the first call Chantay made to you?
AMY WILLIS: Yeah, I believe that we had another staff member here at that time working in the kitchen as well who started working through the process with her and getting the actual 20-C license handled. And really, just navigating the things that she wanted to grow into.
And when you start as a home processor, we like to start as many people there as we can because it's the least expensive way to start a small food-based business. You start at home with the non-hazardous items. And then, as you grow through, you develop a base, you develop customers. You start developing those smaller pieces. And then, it's time to really scale up.
PAUL: OK, just for our listeners, is this something that Cooperative Extension generally does as a rule?
AMY WILLIS: Which part?
PAUL: Picking up the phone when Chantay is on there and saying, yeah, we can give you a hand.
AMY WILLIS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we consider ourselves the boots on the ground for a lot of different things. Broome County, especially, really focuses on the food-based businesses. Every extension has their niche. And when we put in our commercial kitchen and our farmer's market, we knew that we were going to hit a group of people in Broome County-- a group of residents in a space that we had the opportunity to grow into.
PAUL: Now, what was the motivation to, actually, build a commercial kitchen? That's not an inexpensive adventure I would imagine.
AMY WILLIS: So when the idea came about to do the farmer's market, it initially started over at the Otsiningo Park, which is right across the highway from us. And then, when we decided that it was going to come onto our property, the commercial kitchen and the Taste of New York kind of fell in line with it.
We really wanted to have that full circle opportunity for our producers. We knew that if people were working so hard on their farms and in agriculture and in food, we wanted to have those next steps available right here on our campus to be able to develop it all the way through.
PAUL: That's great. Just to throw this. Is there a connection to Agritech in Geneva and the program they have up there?
AMY WILLIS: Absolutely. So we send our people there when they're working through their value added products to get their items tested. So I've been up there and it's amazing. It is one of the neatest opportunities to be able to witness the scientists at work and all of the different ways that they're able to navigate food products.
And the science behind making something shelf stable is pretty unique. And they are top notch for making sure that the safest food products come into New York State.
PAUL: Katie, we haven't heard from you yet. So how do you-- where do you stand in this triad of-- I want to say woman power.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Awesome. Well, it is funny. We always say how it's interesting where we look around our office, which is growing all the time. I'm looking around at the kitchen and I'm surrounded by women. It's really amazing. So I feel like we have such a great support system here in the office.
And I'm fairly newer as well, so I've worked a lot with Amy. She's helped lead the way with getting me all up to date on all of the licenses, all the insurances, the permit pieces. There's just so much that we do. So being the commercial kitchen manager, and then, the second part of that is also product development specialist, there's just a lot that goes into that in terms of the learning.
But we just have such a great network in this office with Cornell, with Geneva Food Venture Center, other extensions. So we're definitely part of just a really wonderful network. So we say, if I don't have the answer, somebody does. We know where to point you no matter what you're going through, what you're trying to achieve, what your goals are. So we really work together as a team, I think, really well.
AMY WILLIS: I agree.
PAUL: Chantay, back to you for a quick question here. During the two years that you've been going through this process, what's been the most challenging thing that you've faced moving from your home kitchen to the commercial kitchen to Taste of New York?
CHANTAY SKRINE: Just learning all the different licensing, again, that's needed. And learning labeling, because I do a lot of things for myself from printing my labels to creating them and everything. Just learning what it takes to actually get my products into the store.
It's just been a lot. It's been a lot. It's been a lot. From farmer's markets, store shelves, that's a big jump. So just making sure that I'm dotting my I's and crossing my T's. And they've been like phenomenal help because they've actually helped me to do those things. Giving me those resources that I can utilize to make this happen.
And giving me feedback where I need it to perfecting. So that's always a plus. You need that positive feedback that constructive criticism sometimes in order to produce the best products. And that's what we want to bring forward.
PAUL: You are one of a number of producers that have been using the commercial kitchen. Can you guys, Amy, Katie, talk about the process of bringing somebody into the kitchen and what that looks like?
AMY WILLIS: I'll let Katie take this one.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Yeah, we do have a good amount of people reaching out to us that are looking for any help, maybe if they do want a home processor permit or they want to join the kitchen. So part of it, we always like to say, what do you want to make? What's your [AUDIO OUT]? Do you have a business plan? Where are you expecting to sell this and to who?
So we always just try to take a second to make sure that we can understand the bigger picture of what people are trying to do. Yeah, come to our kitchen. It's going to be great. OK, let's pump the brakes because everyone's so excited and they have so many great ideas.
So once we understand that, then we can start to guide them. And then, from there, joining the kitchen is a pretty simple process. If they decide, OK, you would like to produce in a commercial kitchen. It's what you need for what food product you want to make. We just have a pretty simple kitchen application and then just some insurance pieces. That's it for the most part.
And then, from there, it's guiding them through what permits do you need? Is this going to be 20-C food processor? If you're going to, let's say, go to make a shelf stable product that you eventually want to get on store shelves? Or do you want to do more the catering route? So that would be just going local through Broome County Department of Health and getting your food permit that way.
And then, you can become, for example, a food vendor at the farmer's market or a caterer, which we're finding in our area is just so popular now. There's just a really big need for that. And a lot of people here, like Chantay--
CHANTAY SKRINE: They're answering that call.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: They have that.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Absolutely. Absolutely.
PAUL: So a couple things you said, Chantay, that resonate particularly with me and I'm sure with a lot of people. The idea of food being love is--
CHANTAY SKRINE: I just got chills.
PAUL: There is something about that element of care and affection that comes out. So how do you express that in your cooking?
CHANTAY SKRINE: By taking my time and treating products with care. And really taking the time to taste. Just the overall the environment, the feeling. I have to be in the kitchen. It should be a place of happiness and love because it generates through your food. It really does. It radiates to the people. People taste it, oh my God, what is that? Love.
That little extra attention that I took to put in there. Just the care. It's the overall care of the product itself. I don't care if it's a loaf of bread. It's all on how you process it. How you take care of it. How you handle it.
PAUL: OK, that's-- right with you on that whole thought.
CHANTAY SKRINE: You like to cook, so you know.
PAUL: Yeah, I think a lot of people do. But sometimes, for many of us who aren't doing this as a profession or as an aspiring profession, cooking becomes very burdensome and routine.
CHANTAY SKRINE: That's why I come from a place of love.
PAUL: That's right. But sometimes, after a full day's work and if you're managing kids, it's hard to muster that love when you're--
CHANTAY SKRINE: I go through it everyday. I'm a single mom of two, OK? And I'm running my business and completely. I live that every day. I live it every day because I still go home and prepare food for my children. And then, I come in and I prepare food for the Taste or food for the market. So believe me, I get it and I live it. I live it.
But it comes from-- cooking is definitely a labor of love. It has to be.
PAUL: So one of the things that also interests me is the idea that, do you come from a family where cooking was a valued skill?
CHANTAY SKRINE: Absolutely. My grandmother is-- both of my grandmothers. Absolutely. Absolutely.
PAUL: Were they native Binghamtonians? Is that the correct term?
CHANTAY SKRINE: No, my great-- my grandmother from Mississippi. I'm from Brooklyn originally, but I have roots in the West Indies and in the South. So that's where you get that togetherness of all different kinds of cuisine coming together.
And I grew up in Brooklyn around a bunch of Hispanics-- just the melting pot. So it was just exposure to all different kinds of cuisines. So that's why I just love to cook everything like bread, I can make cookies, we do it all. I do it all. I love to do it all. I just can't put myself in a box. That's why I think I have so much going on.
It's just hard. It's just hard. But I love it. This is what I'm here to do.
PAUL: I think we already touched on this a bit. But Amy and Katie, part of what you do is mentoring. Can you talk a little bit about that process and how you identify somebody who's ready to take the next step?
AMY WILLIS: Absolutely. And that's something that Katie and I talk about is every email comes in. That's why when she said, we get that first bit of information, we can really tell from that moment whether somebody is ready to take the next steps with us.
And just as much as it's a labor of love to cook the food, it's honestly a labor of love for us to build the relationships. To watch and to be there as these businesses grow. We've had quite a few different small businesses come through the kitchen, and each of them holds us in different ways.
We have young people, we have older people, we've got retired people looking for just something to do on the side, and we have people who have it as their primary source of income. And each of them gets our cell phone number. We are reachable all the time. And we really want to be part of their business. We want to make sure that relationship is held from the very beginning.
So as those initial emails come in, Katie and I take that time to say, OK, what are they looking for? They then come in and meet with Katie. And she gets a little bit of a deeper feel and where they're about to go. From those spaces, we really see, are they farmer's market? Are they value-added products? And what their needs are from us. How much hand-holding do we need to do? Are they ready to go? Do they need more of our support?
So we really take it on a base by base and really see each person as they come in.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: I think that's a really good point is there's all the points we can help people on, but every person is so different. Their experience, their ideas, and we're-- I think regardless of where we think they might head, I think I can speak for both of us saying that we will invest 100%.
And then, up until they say, OK, I'm not going to do this anymore. And then, we always like to just leave the door open as well to for future possibilities. Because it's a lot. And some of these people they have full time jobs, they want to branch off and start a new life, be able to support their family or so many different things.
So we're working with people at the end of the day. So there's that human factor of life and everything that comes with it. So things take their own time and everyone moves at their own pace. We're ready when they are. We're here.
PAUL: So, Chantay, have you felt the love from these two?
CHANTAY SKRINE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.
PAUL: So what is it about Binghamton that makes this seem so unique, so special?
CHANTAY SKRINE: I think it just has a lot of hidden talents. It's a lot of people now bringing their dreams, their goals to the forefront. It's really like-- people are really taking-- this pandemic to had a lot to do with that. People are embracing life a little bit more.
And there's a lot of people here in Broome County that got this talent here from all different kinds of spectrums. There's so much talent here. So I'm not surprised.
AMY WILLIS: I'm born and raised here. So this is a place that I cherish. A lot of the people that I see on a Saturday are people I've been seeing for years. Again, I can go back to relationships all of the time. And that goes through the businesses, it goes through our work experiences, everything.
There's just something really special about building up Binghamton and I think it's gone through waves. And we are at a point right now where we're watching it thrive. And for people that have been through all of the little nooks and crannies of what Broome County and Binghamton have been through, it's an exciting time.
PAUL: But Binghamtonians are not unique, though. You jump across every small town in this state, in this country, there are people who are caring, compassionate, concerned who want to do things. So if there's this perfect storm in a very positive way of the presence of Cooperative Extension with specialists who can help support someone like Chantay with the facilities able to make those connections.
I want to shift for a moment from you, Chantay, to talk to Amy and Katie about some of the other folks that are using the commercial kitchen. What can you tell me about what are they doing? What is their process like? What are the hopes for the future for them?
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Yeah, so right now, we have about five different full time vendors in the kitchen. Some of them vend at the Saturday farmer's market and then do other catering events. And then, others are just pure caterers. One in particular they have-- it's a to-go meal service. So it's healthy, affordable prepped meals that people can pick up straight from the kitchen, which is a really great service that we have seen has been really popular.
And also, the farmer's market vendors we have in addition to Chantay, we have a Korean food vendor. They just started three months ago. And I think it's just interesting watching everyone's journey to see the different paths they take. And I think that it also can be surprising.
So this vendor, in particular, they were looking to bottle their spicy chili sauce kimchi. They were waiting on the 20-C license from New York State markets. And there's been a huge backlog. They're actually backlogged three months for that license.
But she said, hey, but the market's now. I'm ready to go. I want to do something now. And we said, OK, go local. That's always the easier way to get a food permit. And now, they're selling hot green food at the market and finding a lot of success there and doing some other catering events too. So it's always cool to watch the journey that everybody takes.
And then, who else do we have in the kitchen? We also have a Puerto Rican food as well. So we just have a huge variety in the kitchen of a lot of different cuisines. And then, we also do offer a commissary service too. So some people may not be producing in our kitchen per se, but they might have food trucks.
So we have one that's sweets, we have a hot dog vendor, we have a couple different people that have us as their home base for all their resources, maybe a small amount of production filling up their truck for their food truck, things like that. And then, they're just all across town at different food events.
PAUL: So the commercial kitchen is located in the farmer's market. Farmers show up with all their produce. Is there a crossover between the produce at the farmer's market and then them being used in products in the commercial kitchen?
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: So that does happen. Yeah, some letters come in and see the connection that you can buy your fresh veg there. So definitely we have vendors buying from different farmers at the market and using their products there or maybe using honey in different sauces that they're using. So we're definitely lucky that we have the farmer's market community to draw from and vendors are definitely seeing that as well.
We have a local food truck who comes certain Saturdays when they don't have other events, and they'll do a farmer's market special. So they'll go shop the farmer's market before it opens, see what's there, and then, create something that's special just for that Saturday.
PAUL: That's a really beautiful thing.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Yes it is. I think it's the ideal thing, right? When you think of a farmer's market, people are looking at food and farm to table and eating fresh and local and in season.
PAUL: Yeah, but the seasonality thing is really right there.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: Absolutely.
PAUL: Yeah, so that is a beautiful sort of completion of the cycle. Yeah, that is great. So I do want to-- there are two other things and then we can just decide whether to go on or not. But the transition from-- and Chantay, I'm going to shift back to you now. Welcome back to the conversation.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Thank you.
PAUL: The transition from your home to the kitchen to the farmer's market to Taste of New York stores to stores. Once you make it from the farmer's market to Taste of New York stores, are your products then able to be sold in other stores? Or is it specific to Taste of New York shops?
CHANTAY SKRINE: As of right now, it's just specific to Taste of New York for now. And so, I make some more connections. I'm looking to bottle up my barbecue sauce. So that's going to go, preferrable, hopefully, into the Taste and into other stores.
I'm just at the ground right now. So I'm just on the ground and I'm running. So we just--
Yeah, that's pretty much it for now.
PAUL: Yeah, OK. So being able to sell in the Taste store doesn't necessarily mean you're able to sell in grocery stores.
AMY WILLIS: It does. It has to do a lot with your insurance, your labeling, your packaging, your actual production capacity, those types of things. So when you start using our facilities and you start working with myself and Katie, we really want to make sure and hone in on all of those smaller pieces as you scale up into a larger production, which is one of the best things and why we call it the full circle down here, the soil to shelf.
We're able to work through the commercial kitchen and into this smaller store first. Work through, get the bugs out, really focus in on the labeling and your wholesale pricing and what's selling and what's not. It's really having that direct who are your customers and who's buying opportunity before we can then get them into the larger stores.
We also have another Taste of New York location in Kirkwood, which is our Southern Tier Welcome Center. So the idea is once they really navigate this Front Street location and get down all of those smaller pieces and they're able to scale up and they're ready, we get them into that location, which can see 66,000 customers a month.
AMY WILLIS: The amount of people going through that facility is quite massive as it's on 81 North. So this is our little sister store that we start people out and to make sure they're ready for the bigger location. And she's doing a great job. So that will be her next step for sure.
CHANTAY SKRINE: And I'm so humbled.
PAUL: It's the way things should work. So this is good.
CHANTAY SKRINE: Able to get back the feedback, like she was just saying. It's letting me know what I need to do to work it out so that I can move to those next steps.
PAUL: I'm going to ask a possibly impolitic question here. So Taste of New York stores are staffed, run by Cooperative Extension, but it's an Ag and markets thing, right?
AMY WILLIS: Yes, it's an Ag and markets program. And then, a portion of them are run through extensions. There are other Taste of New Yorks that are run by outside entities. But the lucky ones are run extension.
PAUL: So if someone like Chantay-- not specifically singling her out in this case-- but if somebody like her-- somebody like me who went through the process, if once I work with you guys is going to be easier for me to get into the Taste of New York store and then grow myself further?
AMY WILLIS: I will say yes. It's somebody that's there for you. It's one person that is really navigating those muddy waters of food products and licensing and wholesaling that's your partner just to really be your cheerleader along the way and make sure that I's are dotted and T's are crossed to get you to the next level.
PAUL: So here's my possibly contentious question. What do you guys get out of it? What do-- not you, Chantay. We know what you get out of it, and that's really cool and very good. But for the extension end, what do you guys get out of this? How do you sustain this program?
AMY WILLIS: It's so funny because I watch different entities and small businesses succeed. And they feel like-- you know that feeling you have when you watch your kid go from one smaller thing to jump to a larger thing, and you're like, oh my gosh, they did it. I'm so proud. We get that same feeling.
And honestly, I think a lot of us go into the field of service for that reason. My background is sociology. I never in a million years imagined I'd be working in agriculture. I thought for sure it would have taken a different path. And I couldn't see myself anywhere else. That ability to connect to people is everything.
And for extension workers, I think most of us would agree across the state that helping others and being that other person to connect with and build others up is first and foremost.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: 100%.
PAUL: I just wanted to give you the chance.
KATIE MATSUSHIMA: I come from the restaurant business. And I've always loved food, nonprofits, just seeing that the power that food has to lift people up and connect people. I'm not surprised that I'm here at all. So it's great just to be able to work with people so closely. We just have our own personal relationships.
And one size does not fit all by any means. So it's just great knowing that you have that impact on someone's-- it's someone's-- it's their business, but it's their life. It's their whole life. So getting to work with them in the office in the kitchen. And stop by grab some things at the farmer's market and see how they're doing there. It's just a really amazing experience.
And we're really hard to get rid of. We still follow you. We go to your [INAUDIBLE], order catering for every large event that we have. It's just, it's great.
PAUL: One of the things that don't think specifically we brought up at this-- up until this point is I had this question about the role or the importance of food as a bridge across cultures. So can you-- Chantay, can you talk about preparing food and using that as a way to maybe span some gulfs that otherwise would exist with people?
CHANTAY SKRINE: Food is something that brings everybody to the table, OK? Food is universal. This is one of those things that everybody has to eat. So being able to feed people and feed people's soul. That's what I like to cook. That's what I say cook with love because it all comes from your soul.
And when you see people embark on the food that you prepared, it just makes me happy. But food itself is worldwide. Again, everybody has to eat. If you can cook a meal and bring-- people are going to come to the table, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, you cooked well. They're going to come to the table.
And that opens up space for other things, other conversations, and things like that. Absolutely. Food is life.
PAUL: Food is one of those things I think that can help--
CHANTAY SKRINE: Bring everybody to the table.
AMY WILLIS: One of the best things about our location, I think-- you talk about Southern food. There isn't really like a northern food. You come to Broome County and you punch in, you're sitting in some hotel, best restaurants. You are going to find something from every background in Broome County. We are a melting pot of so many different cultures, backgrounds, and food sources. And that's one of the best things to watch explode in our area right now.
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