Co-packer, co-manufacturer and “co-man” are terms that refer to a facility that either manufactures your product or receives your finished good in bulk and packages it for you. This is an efficient, cost-effective way to bring your product to market rather than building your own manufacturing facility. Unfortunately, co-mans are not easy to find. Their websites are usually designed for people already in-the-know. Descriptions of their processes often use strange terms like “flexible pouch retort”, “extrusion facility”, or “form and fill sealers”. When you do find the one that makes sense for your product, it's a challenge just to get them to call you back!
Manufacturing food products is very expensive and co-manufacturers know that many start up companies and food entrepreneurs don’t have the funds for all the test-runs and experimentation needed to validate the manufacturing product. Experimental test-runs and line time can cost thousands of dollars and manufacturers would prefer to work with established food companies. Because of this, manufacturers don’t invest money into marketing their facilities and they don’t bend over backwards to work with you unless you have a @kraft.com or @kellogs.com at the end of your email.
So how can you find someone to make your product and convince them to meet you and take your concept into consideration? The co-manufacturers already know that unless you have lots of investor money you are probably going to cost them more that you will make them in profit.
Smart Online Co-Packer Research
One way to research a co-manufacturer is to call a university food science department and talk with an extension professor who may be connected to co-manufacturing facilities. Find the university closest to you and see if they have a program designed to help entrepreneurs. You don’t necessarily have to join the program--just make an appointment to speak with the head person and ask them if they can give you any leads.
There are also several websites out there designed to help you find a co-manufacturer:
Industry Trade Shows
Attend industry trade shows that are specifically geared toward people looking for manufacturers or specialized equipment (e.g., Pack Expo) or more-general trade shows like IFT and PLMA which have a mixture of ingredient suppliers and manufacturers. These shows are also great networking opportunities, and if you speak with enough people, you will get leads to the right manufacturing facilities. If you become friendly with a salesperson who represents the manufacturer you need, he will be more inclined to call you back versus just cold calling the general office number. You should look for a facility that is already producing products similar to yours and whose team understands the regulations that apply to your type of product.
When you do find a manufacturer that can make your product, you want to let them know that you have a business plan in place, that you have enough funding and that you have a food science consultant on your team who is going to ensure that your product can be manufactured. The less hand holding your manufacturer has to do, the more open they will be to bringing you in for a discussion and an evaluation of your food product.
Rachel Zemser is a Certified Culinary Scientist with a BS in Food Science from the University of Massachusetts, a MS degree in Food Microbiology from the University of Illinois and a culinary arts degree from the New York Restaurant School/Art Institute. She has been working in the food industry for 17 years in both technical and creative roles. She spends most her time all over the U.S. working with both large and small start up companies assisting them with their food science and R&D.
Follow Rachel on Twitter for updates about the food industry.