These Food Business Incubators Are a Recipe for Success
Say you've been told time and again that your signature brownie or marinara sauce is so amazing, you could sell it. Or you fantasize about opening a wine bar or taco joint that you know will do gangbusters in your neighborhood. How to begin?
Building a business takes more than enthusiasm, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private ventures have only about a 50-50 shot of surviving their first four years. But across the country, smart food incubators are breaking down barriers for culinary start-ups: They offer low-cost commercial kitchen spaces; help with product development, marketing, and financials; and provide invaluable mentoring. Here are four that are stirring things up.
A seriously popular chocolate-chip cookie started this outfit. In 2012, Union Kitchen's CEO and cofounder, Cullen Gilchrist, opened a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., called Blind Dog Cafe with friends. To meet demand for the confection baked by his sister, Greer, he needed a bigger kitchen. The one he found, in D.C.'s underdeveloped Ivy City neighborhood, was massive, so he began sharing it with acquaintances in the food industry, and later added a distribution center and opened a couple of small groceries across the city to test and sell the foods and drinksmade there. Today, the accelerator (known as such because it has equity in its partners, versus just getting them off the ground) helps entrepreneurs develop, launch, and sell their products in just 8 to 12 weeks.
Gilchrist and his crew then leverage their relationships with regional and national retailers (including Whole Foods) and distributors to help businesses scale and expand. Over the past six years, the hub has placed more than a thousand new items on shelves. "Members are putting their everything-passion, time, focus, and money-into building something they believe belongs in our world," he says. "It's very satisfying to be around people like that."
Located in the Mission District of San Francisco, this incubator helps low-income women, immigrants, and people of color bring their brilliant concepts to market. "We've had entrepreneurs from 19 countries go through the program, and I'm continually surprised by the diversity of foods coming out of our kitchen," says La Cocina's deputy director Leticia Landa, referring to delicacies like the Nepalese momos and Vietnamese beef pho that are produced on site.
La Cocina spends six months with each member, providing a solid foundation in product development, marketing, and the financial and operational logistics of running a business (say, how to cost and scale recipes, set up a farmers'-market booth, or streamline production to save time and money), as well as affordable commercial kitchen space.
Since 2005, alumni have launched 51 ventures and opened 30 cafés, food kiosks, and acclaimed restaurants (of special note: Nyum Bai, a local Cambodian hot spot from chef Nite Yun; and Reem's California and Dyafa, both from 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist Reem Assil). "These businesses, and their owners' being recognized as leaders in the food industry, expand opportunities for other immigrant women and women of color," Landa says, adding that the enterprises have created 150 new jobs in the Bay Area.
While serving in the navy in 2014, Tyler Benson and Ben Mantica spent stretches of time in Southeast Asia, where they marveled at the region's street markets. "They were incredibly active and had great food options in a really casual environment," says Benson. "Our goal was to replicate the quality and style of service in the States."
A year later, they moved to Mantica's hometown of Pittsburgh and opened Smallman Galley. The spacious food hall houses four restaurants with two communal bars (one coffee, one cocktail) that switch out every 18 months or so. Fully equipped kitchens and seating for 200 allow the rotating chefs and restaurateurs to build their menus, and their followings, without paying the staggering start-up funds required for a stand-alone business. Members, who are chosen based on an online application and pitches to a panel of local food writers and industry professionals, pay between $5,000 and $10,000 for labor, food, and small wares.
Galley Group provides front-of-house managers, bussers, dishwashers, and bar staff, along with support and advice from its network of experts. And sales go straight into members' accounts. The pair has teamed up with 19 chefs in total, and opened a second Pittsburgh location, Federal Galley, in 2017, as well as two more in Cleveland and Detroit.
Hot Bread Kitchen's Incubator
This organization's parent company, Hot Bread Kitchen, started 11 years ago in the Brooklyn kitchen of founder Jessamyn Rodriguez. With a decade of social justice and public-policy experience under her belt, Rodriguez had a bold idea: a commercial bakery that doubles as a bread-baking collective.
Today, in a bustling East Harlemmarket, women from all over the world take part in its culinary-training program, learning classic skills-along with resume writing and kitchen math and science-before nabbing fair-wage jobs with benefits. Operating costs are funded in part by sales of the 75 varieties of artisan breads they make. In 2011, the group launched the incubator, which has helped catapult some 215 participants-from jam makers to caterers-to success. For a monthly fee (subsidized rates are available), members get access to a shared commercial kitchen, educational programs, one-on-one coaching, and business referrals (introductions to catering companies, for example).
The executive director, Shaolee Sen, has loved watching collaborations between members, 94 percent of whom are women or people of color. "It can be lonely to build a business; you're working hard to succeed and wearing so many different hats," she says. "Having support while you're cooking and running a hundred miles per hour is inspiring."