Around the State- Northeast- May 2002
A UF researcher says Florida is ideal for raising water buffalo, whose milk is in big demand for mozzarella.
By Deborah Borfitz
The money in milk these days is in cheese -- gourmet mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalo, says Hugh Popenoe, a professor with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. While regular cow's milk sells for 12 to 15 cents a pound wholesale, water buffalo milk, with just 8% butterfat, brings in 75 cents a pound from cheese makers desperate for it. "It's the most expensive cheese in the store ($15 to $20 a pound) and takes only three days to make," says Popenoe. "It's where all the money is."
America imports about 90,000 pounds of buffalo mozzarella from Italy annually but could make more of it domestically. Conditions in Florida are perfect for raising the animals, says Popenoe: Water buffalo thrive on poorer farmlands and aquatic weeds and are resistant to parasites that plague cattle. Fewer than 8,000 of the animals graze at a smattering of mom-and-pop operations nationwide compared with 100,000 in Italy and 70 million in India.
Popenoe, whose office serves as headquarters of the American Water Buffalo Association, and other UF researchers haven't had much luck so far at convincing Florida ranchers of the buffalo's potential, however. "It's hard for them to think of cheese-making as a profitable enterprise," he says. Only one small dairy in Live Oak has expressed an interest.
For now, the researchers are providing their expertise at a demonstration water buffalo dairy in Vermont. The goal is to have 100 milking animals and produce 300 pounds of cheese per day by 2004. Some of the water buffalo will be "surplus zoo animals" from Popenoe's own 500-head herd on a farm near Gainesville.
Popenoe says the buffalo also have potential as meat animals, with some supermarket chains already selling buffalo burgers. Water buffalo "tastes beefier than beef " but has less cholesterol and saturated fat than poultry, he says.
In the News
Alachua County -- Digital Optronics Corp., a plastic fiber-optic cable manufacturer spun off from Nanoptics Inc. of Gainesville, plans to start operations in Alachua by August or September. It will employ about 30, with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $80,000. The company's high-speed cable is used by the telecommunications industry.
Clay County -- Construction crews have broken ground on Oakleaf Plantation, a 6,400-acre planned community of about 11,000 homes, 5.8-million square feet of commercial space, a golf course and 1,400 acres of preservation land. David W. Hutson is the developer of the $2-billion project, which also includes part of Duval County. The first residents are expected to move in late this year.
Jacksonville -- The legal battle pitting city hall and the Utility Contractors Association of North Florida is billowing into a nasty dispute. In jeopardy are the timely completions of projects included in the $2.2-billion Better Jacksonville plan -- improvements deemed vital to a well-run 2005 Super Bowl. In February, the UCA sued the city, challenging the constitutionality of Jacksonville's Equal Business Opportunity program, which sets goals for minority, women and Hispanic business participation in city contracts. A judge is expected to set a trial date this month.
Rick Ferrin, executive director of the Jacksonville Port Authority, predicts at least one cruise ship line will make Jacksonville its home port within 18 months. The "drive-to" cruise business is now booming in the wake of concerns about flying, Ferrin says. "And because Jacksonville is within a six- or seven-hour drive of major cities, we're a natural." Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the lines most often mentioned.
Volvo is forsaking the port of Jacksonville for Brunswick, Ga. The 30,000 vehicles the Swedish automaker had been processing in Jacksonville comprised about 5% of the port's auto business and represented about $500,000 in annual revenues. Earlier this year, Southeast Toyota Distributors extended its 33-year relationship with Jacksonville's Port Authority through 2027. Toyota's business generates nearly $1.5 million a year for the port.
Building permits for single-family homes in northeast Florida were 7% higher in February than a year ago; for the first two months of the year, permits totaled 1,647 vs.1,224 for the year-earlier period. The data reflects activity in Duval, Nassau, St. Johns and Clay counties.
Ocala -- The Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Council is studying whether to create a business incubator at Central Florida Community College's Hampton campus. A consultant's report recommends the idea.
St. Augustine -- St. Augustine has been voted best tourist town in the South for the fourth consecutive year by Family Fun, a Disney Publishing magazine that polled readers in five regions about how friendly and accessible towns are to families. "South" ranges from Louisiana to Maryland.
McGarvey Residential Communities, a Jacksonville Beach company, is planning to develop Anastasia Dunes in St. Augustine Beach. The 32 single-family lots are priced between $101,900 and $132,000; homes will cost from $399,000 to $550,000, says project developer Jay McGarvey.
St. Johns County -- Developer Paul Fletcher has started building the first 15 of 100 luxury condominium units at Palencia, a 45-acre golf course community near St. Augustine. Units will range from 2,500 to 3,300 square feet and cost $500,000 to $800,000.
Firehouse Subs: Spreading Like Wildfire
Before following their entrepreneurial urges, brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen fought fires. Now they're in another red-hot business: Firehouse Subs. Since October 1994, the company they founded has grown from one shop in Jacksonville to 45 shops in four states. Over the next five to six years, the Sorensen chain expects to grow to 300 stores in 10 states and become one of the five premier sub/sandwich chains in the country.
Area representatives are the linchpins of the company's expansion plan: Instead of selling single stores to individual franchisees, Firehouse sells rights to geographic territories, with the number of shops per territory determined by an area's population -- one per 50,000. The initial development fee is $5,000 per store, and the current average cost of one shop is about $150,000.
"An area representative who has, say, 10 stores will be required to run one of the 10 and sell the other nine to franchisees that he or she recruits," says chief of operations Kelly Harris, a restaurant veteran who joined the company in 1996.
The plan is ambitious, but so are the chain's accolades. Last year Firehouse Subs won Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year Award and for five years has been ranked among the state's 100 fastest-growing firms by the University of Florida's School of Entrepreneurship.