By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An innovative program at a Twin Cities food co-op is helping bring food producers with a product and a dream to its shelves.

“Maker to Market” connects food entrepreneurs with resources in sourcing, branding, and marketing to bring them to the shelves at Lakewinds Food Co-op.

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“We have this opportunity to do a highly concentrated program where we bring local companies in contact with local farmers and bring them to market here,” said Kate Kearns from Lakewinds.

It’s a boot camp, a “food accelerator program,” and companies that are accepted and go through the six-month program are guaranteed a spot on the retail shelves at all Lakewinds co-op stores, in Richfield, Chanhassen and Minnetonka.

“Everyone’s been holding my hand through the process, they have the know-how,” said Therese Moore, founder of 3 Bears Oats, a frozen food bowl using steel cut oats as the base. She was selling her two sweeter breakfast-type bowls and two savory lunch or dinner bowls at farmers markets, and now has her product on the shelves at Lakewinds.

“It’s really exciting. Something I never imagined,” she said.

Makers are chosen by a panel of retail, marketing and culinary experts with a goal of getting produce-based products that align with the Minnesota growing season, and committed to sourcing from a non-profit called The Good Acre. They can’t currently be selling at retail.

“The whole process has been amazing,” said Jen Alexander, the CEO of Jen’s Jars. Alexander was selling a cannelloni bean-based hummus and a spinach pesto among other products at Farmers Markets and was ready to take the next step.

The best part of going through the program?

“Having someone in the kitchen looking at my process and showing me ways to be more efficient, showing me ways that I can scale, so I don’t have to compromise on my ingredients or on the love I put in the jar,” she answered.

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Two other companies were chosen for the class of 2019: Lost Capital Food is a line of fermented hot sauces, and ProCured is a mushroom jerky snack company.

Seminars with legal experts to talk about FDA requirements, marketing people look at packaging, online experts analyze their websites, and The Good Acre helps connect them with local farmers for sourcing ingredients, and helps them get their recipes viable for larger production.

“We talk about how to make it work in gluts, or how do you process and freeze,” said Natalie Vandenberg from The Good Acre.

“And we talk about real costs and leaving margin if you want to put something on promotion or what the cost of packaging is,” Kearns said.

“To not compromise in taste or quality while making it in half the time is really exciting,” said Moore.

The goal is to help propel Jen’s Jars and Therese’s 3 Bear Oats beyond the shelves of Lakewinds, creating local success stories on the shelf.

“We definitely want to see them grow. If Jen sells more Spinach Pesto Jars, then we can sell tons more of spinach, and great, we’re happy to do that,” said Vandenberg.

“We’re sourcing produce from small local farmers, helping local businesses, and create a pipeline for products our customers want,” said Kearns.

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The next application period will begin in January of 2019.

Jason DeRusha