The pungent scent of onions grilling filled the commercial kitchen tucked inside the Republic Food Enterprise Center. The onions were being prepared last week to go into the 25-gallon braising pan where a tomato-rich batch of Mr. Gz's Slatherrring Sauce was cooking.
Michael Glagola, who has worked as both a chef and a home inspector, had been turned away by numerous fire halls in his hunt for a space with equipment that could handle the quantities he needs to launch his own brand of condiments. "Then I stumbled across this place," the Carroll Township resident said.
The Fayette County building -- a former distribution center for the IGA grocery business -- is being redeveloped as a key ingredient in a local food chain. Like the slow-cooking sauce, the project has simmered a long time but finally may be getting ready to serve.
The next few months will be critical in the push to sell the idea that this place can help area farms sell their goods; help restaurants and stores source locally; cater meals for area businesses; and, as a byproduct, create food industry jobs for residents of Fayette County where the unemployment rate is above 8 percent.
"Hopefully by growing season next year, this is going to be loaded full of produce," said Mark Swankler, who took over the still evolving job of general manager of the Republic Food Enterprise Center a little more than a year ago.
He was standing in a room designed to keep produce cool, a space overhauled in the past six months as part of construction work that also created a massive room where workers can clean and prepare goods delivered from farms in the region. The Fayette County Community Action Agency Inc. is using a mix of government and foundation funding, which so far adds up to about $1.5 million, to overhaul the 50,000-plus-square-foot building and launch the new programs.
The Republic project now has two employees, including Mr. Swankler, plus an AmeriCorps Vista worker, but a sales and marketing staffer is expected to start work soon. Part of that person's job will be to get the word out to restaurants and businesses that the food enterprise center can help supply their needs and also to farmers that there will be demand for their crops.
Because farms make decisions during the winter on what to plant for next year's harvest, "Right now is the crucial period," said Mr. Swankler.
The Fayette County branch of the Penn State Extension will hold its annual banquet in the building later this month, a move to get the 75 to 80 people who typically attend the event inside the Republic center. They'll get a tour, hand out awards and dine on food prepared in the facility's commercial kitchen.
The kitchen is indicative of the strategic shifts that the Fayette County agency has gone through as it works to turn the building into an economic development force. The building started as a business incubator about a decade ago, and workers still use space to assemble liners that will be filled elsewhere with explosives. The cooking equipment was added later to give entrepreneurs a place to make food products.
Although that never created enough work to keep the center in business, it's still a piece of the plan for the future, as the Mr. Gz's project illustrates. Mr. Glagola leased the kitchen at a cost of $50 an hour, plus a $200 security deposit. That fee covered use of the equipment, utilities and garbage collection.
"The only thing he had to bring in is his food," said Mr. Swankler. "It's actually a good price."
The Republic Food Enterprise Center is also setting up to offer catering by its own staff. The menu is heavy on buffet offerings, boxed meals and finger foods -- the kinds of things that would work for business gatherings. Eventually some of the supplies could be sourced locally.
This summer, Mr. Swankler began running classes to train people in safe food handling techniques, something that the remodeled offices at the center made possible to do on site.
Meanwhile, the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council has been backing the creation of a network of farmers markets, something that didn't exist in Fayette County several years ago despite its numerous farms. The Republic center is meant to work in partnership with those markets, and the combination of the two operations could help reassure those interested in growing perishable crops that they will have places to sell what they produce.
"I think a lot of things are falling together," said Walt Bumgarner, Penn State Extension livestock educator, who is helping to organize the upcoming banquet and has been part of past discussions on how to use the building to help the community.
Not all farmers are interested in developing their own branded products, like Mr. Glagola's sauces, but they are happy to have a place to sell their crops, said Mr. Bumgarner. "I think this has good potential."
For his part, Mr. Glagola has hopes of establishing a viable small business. He set up a Facebook page to promote the line and planned to have a website go live this week. In a few weeks, he's hoping to get his bottled sauces into a few independent Giant Eagle stores in the area, but he also hopes to sell to friends who run restaurants in places like Texas and North Carolina.
His line could eventually expand to include a dry rub or a mustard. If things work out, he wouldn't mind sourcing more ingredients locally. Tomatoes would have to wait for the next harvest, but he found a local honey producer.
The Republic's facilities will help his expansion effort. "I was making it at home," he said. "But to get it in a grocery store, you need to be like you're a restaurant."
Growing interest both regionally and nationally in locally sourced food should help the Republic project, said Mr. Bumgarner.
Mr. Swankler, who has worked as a chef and culinary educator, hopes to be able to promise restaurants that the center can prepare fresh, local produce anyway they want it. He shows off a dicing machine still in its packaging. "It slices, it dices, it chops," he said, handing over the brochure proudly.
The center is meant to create 40 new full-time positions ranging from helping with catering to working in the warehouse on shipping and receiving operations, with the bulk filled by low-income county residents. Eventually, the plan calls for turning the center into a worker-producer owned cooperative.
Mr. Swankler is encouraged by the number of applicants he's heard from who say they could walk to work, an indication they live in the nearby community that could use the jobs.
Eventually -- maybe in a year or two -- yet another portion of the sprawling building could serve the local community in another way. A section that retains its old brick walls and historic character may become a marketplace for local goods.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.