Dan Rao, the founder and CEO of Assured Edge Solutions (AES), doesn’t believe his custom vegetable processing and co-packing company would have survived the pandemic and thrived if it was located anywhere other than Geneva.
Rao frequently refers to the people and the enthusiastic business climate as being integral to his food technology firm, which started in 2012 at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park, also known as the Tech Farm.
“The folks here are key to how we’ve grown,” he says about his company which has 16 employees and dozens of customers. Rao’s ability to connect with economic development partners and major regional brands is one of the qualities that has made AES successful. He explains that the food and beverage ecosystem in Geneva actively works to help each other with civic leaders, government organizations, and business champions stepping up to assist whenever a boost is needed.
“What’s really unique is that you have all these different facets [of people in our community]. You have entrepreneurs. You have large businesses. You have businesses that have been in Geneva and the Finger Lakes area for a long time. Retailers like Wegmans and institutions like Cornell University are all working for the same goal to produce high quality food and beverages.”
Connections Aid in Landing New Customers
The interconnections in the industry brought Rao into contact with Frank Cavallaro, who was with LiDestri Food and Drink when they first connected and is now the COO of Ithaca Hummus. Frank then introduced Rao to people at Wegmans.
This resulted in a deal with the grocery retailer to develop a new product different from anything his company had worked on up to that point.
Rao turned to his local community of experts to help develop this new product line. Besides being staffed with specialists in food and beverage safety and standards, Cornell’s Food Venture Center one building over from Rao’s office the Tech Farm had all the equipment he needed.
Use of the Food Venture Center (FVC) facilities helps a small company like AES from needing to invest significant resources in new equipment and new infrastructure. The FVC offers High Pressure Processing (HPP), a Vinification & Brewing Laboratory, and a Pilot Plant designed for food businesses of all sizes to facilitate product development and scale up new or optimized food products.
“If there’s a food company out there that hasn’t used the Food Venture Center yet, get in your car and go use it. It’s well worth any money you spend,” Rao says.
Like many entrepreneurs, Dan has encountered speed bumps on the road to growth. AES benefited from his contacts within the Geneva community and the Finger Lakes region to find help financing equipment and hiring staff as the company brought on new products and clients. “When our company really started to grow, we needed capital. Both the City of Geneva and Ontario County came up with investments via low-interest loans for us. Matching loans allowed us to hire the people and get the equipment we needed to sustain growth.”
That growth and spirit of cooperation helped AES land a number of customers, including Momofuku, a New York City-based producer of seasoned salts and gourmet sauces; and Dr. Cowan’s Garden, a San Francisco company that makes organic vegetable powders, among others.
Connections Overcome Hard Times
Rao relates a story about how food and beverage businesses in Geneva help each other and their employees during hardship. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the economy, one local manufacturer was forced to make the hard decision to lay off some employees because business was slow. Hearing this, Rao offered to take on the employees, and now AES lends them back to the original company when AES’s volume drops, and the other company’s business picks up.
“Where else do you do that?” Rao says with enthusiasm. “Where else do you swap an employee and say, ‘Don’t worry about it’? It’s unheard of. And it’s very comforting knowing that we have these people out there. They’re not only business colleagues, they’re friends. They’re almost like family. It’s really cool. There’s no other way to say it.”
Connections Help Construct a New Building
When AES needed to expand beyond its current space at the Tech Farm, Rao knew he could turn to his allies for help. Ontario County, the City of Geneva, Wegmans, the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech, and the Tech Farm’s board of directors worked to help secure funding from the state and federal government to build a new building on the The Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park campus.
“To have them do that and show that they wanted to keep us in the county, it’s just amazing,” Dan reflects. “Absolutely amazing.” The new building, the second on the Tech Farm’s campus, will house new machinery and production capabilities, and is expected to be operating late 2022 or early 2023.
In sharing final remarks, Rao sums up his feelings about the Geneva and Finger Lakes region succinctly, “It’s the word ‘passion’ that ties us all together. We use words to describe the food and beverage scene here like ‘ecosystem’ and ‘community,’ but what’s the baseline that pulls us through? It’s really that word- ‘passion’.”