Alumni Stories

Tony Caccomo,’70: Leading Innovations in Food

There’s a food revolution happening, and Tony Caccomo, ’70, is at the forefront. And that’s exactly where you’d expect him to be.

He’s always been somewhat of an activist, he says. As a student at Niagara, he helped to establish Niagara University’s club football team (raising more than $10,000 the first year to run the program), was a Grand Knight in the campus’s Knights of Columbus group, and a founding member of Tau Kappa Epsilon, the world’s largest collegiate social fraternity. In fact, he proudly notes that his was the first pin issued by the NU chapter, and that he is memorialized for his work as a question on the test taken by prospective TKE members.

After graduating from NU in 1970 with a degree in transportation, Tony’s activism evolved into entrepreneurship, and he spent several successful decades in real estate, specializing in commercial, industrial, and investment properties in New York. He owned a brokerage, development, and management business before moving to Chicago to work for Baird & Warner, Inc., one of the largest real estate firms in the Midwest, and then set up his own development, management, financing, leasing, and management companies in the Chicago area. In the early 2000s, he “started dabbling” with olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and spices, opening Antonio’s Gourmet Shop, which sold its products to schools and organizations for their fundraising programs.

In 2010, at a time when he admits he “should be retired,” Tony decided to look into opening an incubator food manufacturing facility in Decatur, Ill., where he was now living. He had helped to develop Hudson Valley Foodworks in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1998, the largest incubator commercial kitchen at that time, and now wanted to do something similar in Decatur. With its ample access to transportation, its close proximity to three major metropolitan areas, and its abundant natural resources, including thousands of square miles of rich farm soil and unlimited access to fresh water, Tony knew the city was a prime location for such an endeavor. He envisioned it as part of a regional food hub for the Midwest, serving as a conduit for the introduction of unique products, ideas, and new formulations in the rapidly evolving food industry.

When he pitched the idea to Jim Milano, his former Hudson Valley Foodworks associate, Jim agreed it was worth pursuing. So Tony began looking for a suitable building to purchase. He also began reaching out to area organizations to gauge their interest in his proposed National Foodworks Services food incubator. One of the places he contacted was Archer Daniels Midland, a global food processing and commodities trading corporation whose North American headquarters were in Decatur. Tony initially offered the use of the incubator to the organization’s research and development group, and as the leadership of ADM learned more about NFS’s potential, they became interested in getting involved with the business. So interested, in fact, that in September of 2015, ADM invested $2 million to help NFS get started.

This vote of confidence prompted Tony to look for larger sites for the facility. He found the perfect property, a former elementary school, right next door to ADM’s Randall Research Center. The 40,000 square-foot building had more than enough space for production, office, training, and storage areas, and with 7.5 acres of land surrounding it, there was opportunity for expansion.

Tony notes that NFS, which held a ribbon-cutting in April 2016, piqued the interest of large food companies because the incubator enables them to produce new product quickly and economically. The first items produced were baked goods, nutrition bars, sauces, and salad dressings, but Tony expects to expand into other food categories.

As expected, it’s also attracted food entrepreneurs. To assist them, NFS and ADM launched the Food Innovation Challenge, which invites entrepreneurs to submit their innovative product ideas in the hope of winning $100,000 in seed funding and services. Ten semi-finalists were chosen and matched with mentors from contest sponsors ADM and NFS, as well as other industry groups and organi-zations, to help them refine their products and business plans. In the inaugural challenge, which was held during the summer of 2016, Soozie’s Doozies, LLC of Union, Missouri, was named the winner.

Tony also established a partnership with Richland Community College’s Culinary Arts Institute, one of the largest culinary programs in the Midwest, and Millikin University to create the National Institute for Food Entrepreneurship, a formal training program to further the development and growth of food entrepreneurs.

“We’re interested in training people in the food industry to come up with answers and solutions,” he says. “We can’t guarantee that they’ll succeed, but if we have a good, well-rounded program, we can help them in the areas of marketing or finance or development of the product, and we can expose them to food scientists who might be able to tweak their ideas a bit.”

The third aspect of the NFS business plan is the establishment of Heart of America Foodworks, a nonprofit entity that will manufacture and distribute food products to underserved commu-nities and food banks. The NU Vincentians, Tony says, inspired this part.

Construction for Phase 1 of the building renovations began in 2015, and Tony says that future additions are planned. They’ve put together a management team that includes business leaders, marketing experts, and a food safety engineer, and have already been asked to ship product to China and Africa.

“We’ve been very fortunate and very blessed that this has all just evolved extremely well for us,” Tony says. “This has been the culmination of our backgrounds in real estate, entrepreneurship, and food manufacturing. But we still have a long way to go. What we’re going to see here in the next few years is pretty exciting.”